Bloomingdale woman to take the ice as Olympic referee
Erin Blair has spent much of her life training for the Winter Olympics. In February, the Bloomingdale resident will take the ice to officiate games featuring the greatest women's hockey players in the world at the Sochi Olympics.
Blair, 32, a health teacher at Lakewood School in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, has been a referee on the youth, local, national and international levels for 14 years. The Lisle native will represent the International Ice Hockey Federation at the Olympics during the women's hockey series and says she still can't believe this is actually happening.
"It's something I've been working toward for a long time. There are so many people in the system who want what I want -- there were never any guarantees," Blair said. "It's going to be on a huge stage. It's a worldwide event. It's something that, honestly, I don't even know what to expect."
Her colleagues at Lakewood couldn't be more excited about one of their own making an impact at the Olympic Games. Principal Asia Gurney said the school will honor Blair at an assembly this week. Students are conducting a pennant design contest and Blair would carry the winning student's pennant on the road with her to Russia. They may even hold a mock hockey game to help Blair prepare for the real thing.
"It's very exciting because basically all the kids knew she was waiting to hear if she made it and now she did," Gurney said. "It's pretty exciting for the kids to see someone's dream come true and see that hard work really does pay off."
Blair started her hockey career as an 8-year-old playing for the Sabres, a youth club based at the All Seasons Ice Arena in Naperville. From there she joined Team Illinois, a competitive girls league at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge.
Once she got to high school, Blair continued playing for Team Illinois and also skated for a year with the Naperville North High School boys hockey team.
"I loved it, actually," Blair said of her time at the high school. "I was a goalie, so I had a lot of big brothers on the team that protected me."
She moved on to play goalkeeper for the Division I women's hockey at the University of Findlay in Ohio. In the spring of her freshman year, she started officiating hockey games at her school. Because Blair "lived" at the campus rink, she already knew the university was in need of referees, so she pitched in to help.
"It was something fun, it was a challenge," Blair said. "I just picked up a new hobby and this is what it turned into."
Her playing career ended once she graduated from college with a degree in exercise science, but her side gig as a referee took off. She officiated youth games and worked her way up to the district and state level. Because she performed well, she was invited to officiate at national and later, international tournaments.
Matt Leaf, director of USA Hockey's officiating education program, took notice of Blair about a dozen years ago at a weeklong development camp. Through the years, Blair worked hard on and off the ice by staying physically fit, updated on the rules and officiated high-level games during her vacation time, Leaf said.
"She obviously was a young woman when she came into the system and not only has she matured from a particular life standpoint but very much from an officiating standpoint in terms of her experience, in terms of her skill level and ability to manage difficult situations on the ice," Leaf said. "Everything one would ask from a high-level official, she's been as professional as one could possibly be."
When she referees stateside Blair officiates men and women, and when she's overseas it's strictly women. She's been refereeing on the international level for 10 years, and her skills have taken her to women's hockey games in Finland, Germany, Latvia, China, Switzerland, England and Kazakhstan.
"I love the challenge -- that's what keeps me doing it. It's always different," Blair said, adding that she takes it in stride when parents and coaches disagree with her calls. "There's always a different challenge in every game. The challenge is to always bring your 'A' game."
Blair was selected for the Olympics based on experience and the international tournaments she's officiated. She credits her contacts in the Illinois Hockey Officials Association, at the University of Findlay and within USA Hockey for her rapid ascent.
She finally heard the good word about the Olympics earlier this month.
"I'm still trying to wrap my head around everything that's going on. I'm in awe of everything that's happened," Blair said. "It is astonishing to me that people are thinking they should congratulate me. It blows my mind. It's crazy."