Shane Gustafson, a senior three-year varsity forward for the Crystal Lake South hockey team, was planning to attend the state championship games with a friend on March 20 played at the United Center.
Until he was asked to officiate the combined division game.
"I was completely shocked," he said of being selected one of the three on-ice referees for the Waubonsie-Glenbard game, won by Waubonsie. "I had no idea I was going to be selected.
"I was very honored to be selected as this game means a lot to many people, not to mention it (was played) at the United Center. I was beyond thankful to everyone who has helped me become the official I am today and also to all of the people who were a part of making the selection for me to officiate this game. It was an absolute honor."
Gustafson, 18, who lives in Lake In The Hills, was a two-time all-conference skater for the Gators, team captain this season and one of the top 10 overall scoring leaders in school history.
He has been officiating for six years and worked about 215 games this season, mostly midget level and high school action. The United Center assignment was "the highlight of my officiating career so far," he said.
Gustafson also has officiated two bantam-level Northern Illinois Hockey League (NIHL) championship games, a peewee-level state championship game, three high school state tournament games, and the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) showcase in Troy, Mich., this past January.
"The (United Center) game was awesome, a tremendous atmosphere," Gustafson said. "Both schools brought a great fan base, which made the experience just that much better. It was the biggest crowd I had ever worked in front of by a long shot and it was a little overwhelming at first. But once I settled in, it was so much fun and I had a great crew out there working with me. It was a great game, very physical (and) fast moving."
And, well, a bit comical.
At one point, he had to pick up some debris that a fan threw on the ice. It was a pancake uncooked and wet.
"I didn't ask any questions," he said, laughing.
Gustafson admitted he was nervous before the game, but not on the ice.
"The big thing going through my head was to not fall down on the warm up lap," he said. "I was shaking a little bit during the national anthem at center ice, but once that puck dropped, I was zoned in and it felt like just another game."
Gustafson said it's "a little weird" at time officiating fellow high school students, "but at the same time, it is really cool."
"I like the fact that I can talk to the players on the ice and sort of relate to them when it comes to hockey," he said. "When you are (officiating) younger level (games), you can't really communicate with the players all that much, whereas the kids my age can have a conversation with you and they can discuss what is happening in the game.
"It's weird when (officiating) a game and I'll see a familiar name on a jersey of someone that I use to play with … it's kind of cool."
Gustafson, who will attend Northern Illinois in the fall, started officiating in seventh-grade when he temporarily stopped playing. It was his way to stay in the game and also earn some spending cash.
"Although it started out as a way to make money, it quickly switched and became my life, and I would do it every day if I could; I would work my games for free just because I love being on the ice and working games," he said. "One of the best things about being a referee (is), meeting so many people that you develop great friendships on and off the ice. I wouldn't trade my job for anything."
Gustafson said playing has certainly helped his officiating, and vice versa.
"Being a referee has taught me that there are people out there who will yell and scream at you for the littlest things and they will be disrespectful and it's just not right. Experiencing this first hand has taught me to be respectful, understanding, and cooperative on the ice," he said. "The officials are human and make mistakes; the right thing to do is to ask them nicely and work with them to understand their take on what happened."
Gustafson, a member of the Advanced Development Program, run by the Illinois Hockey Officials Association (IHOA), said a long-term career as an official "would be the most amazing job in the world."
"I would love traveling around the country skating with some of the best players in the world and some of the best officials in the world, who share the same love and passion for the stripes as I do," he said. "It obviously does not come easy, so I will just continue to give it my all, day in and day out, and work as hard as I can and see how far this career can take me. Obviously it is my dream to someday officiate in the NHL."
Craig Welker, a Big Ten Conference hockey referee who lives in Hoffman Estates and is the officiating committee business manager for the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI), said Gustafson certainly is skating along a perfect path.
"Shane is a great up and coming official who always gives 110 percent, no matter what level (of game) he is working," Welker said.
Gustafson sang the praises of many within IHOA who have helped his officiating career, including two who, he admitted, may not even know it: Erin Blair and Andy McElman. Both are local products who officiated the Sochi Winter Olympics, and McElman is an NHL veteran linesman.
"These two people have showed me that it is possible to accomplish your dreams as long as you put your mind to it," he said. "These two are role models for me and I strive to be like them on and off the ice."