Michigan’s Melissa Szkola takes part in Worlds – as referee
Melissa Szkola of St. Clair Shores played a key role in five games at the IIHF Women’s World Championship Tournament in Plymouth March 31-April 7. But she didn’t score a goal, assist on one or make any saves.
That’s because she wore a black-and-white-striped uniform as part of the IIHF A Pool officiating staff, one of three Americans on the Elite crew and the only one from Michigan.
And if you think Szkola was just lucky to get this assignment, think again. It was at least eight years in the making for the 35-year-old official who grew up Melissa Orr in Port Huron never having played hockey until college, when she joined Oakland University’s club team as a defenseman in 2001.
“I played college club hockey and that’s it,” said Szkola, who was interviewed while attending the USA Hockey Nationals for Tier II Girls at Troy Sports Center the weekend of April 8-10. “I was a competitive figure skater before that. My older brother played Travel hockey, so I had always been around the game.”
She played at Oakland for four years and then joined an adult league, where she met Jim Szkola, who played for another team.
“My husband and his brother both officiated hockey,” she said. “So when he and I met, he asked me to come to a seminar.
“That was 10 years ago. My skating skills from figure skating have taken me a long way for sure.”
Szkola then met another Michigan referee, Krissy Morrison.
“I skated my second game ever with her, and we had a conversation where she says, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of opportunity for female officials,’ ” Szkola said. “So she kind of put the bug in my ear from the very beginning … She was a mentor to me and still is.
“She’s the one who got me striving to do more than there was to in Michigan. There are enough people in Michigan who are passionate about it, and they kind of guided me along.”
The road to Szkola’s Women’s Worlds assignment began in 2008 with her first regional camp to become certified for USA Hockey Nationals. That was followed by 2010 certification as an international referee and her first Worlds event in New Zealand, where she officiated games in the 2B Pool.
Each year she moved up the ranks. She finally attended A Pool camp and learned last October she was certified and would be working in Plymouth.
She said some friends suggested it was too bad she was staying in Michigan for the honor instead of going somewhere else in the world.
“To me it was really special being here in Michigan,” she said. “…You don’t get too many opportunities to skate at home. My dad and my stepmom drove up from Tennessee and were there for my first game. He’s never really been there to see me skate. My mom was able to come, my sister brought the kids. So to be able to have family and local referees come to watch you, those who helped you along the way, to me was very special.
“Not only are you fulfilling the accomplishment of a dream you’ve had for the last eight years, but you now get to share that … It was not only reaching A Pool, it was a lot more than that.”
Officials are not allowed to work games involving their home countries, so Szkola did not work the gold medal game. But she said two of the five games she skated stood out for her: the bronze medal match between Finland and Germany – “an honor” she said – and the Canada-Finland game, in which the Finns upset the Canadians.
“That to me was exciting because we need that competition in Women’s hockey,” she said. “So to see another team coming up and pushing the limits of Canada and the U.S. is really great.”
Szkola has one more career goal: being certified for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“That’s my goal,” she said. “There’s a pre-Olympic camp in August that you have to be invited to, and I’ll wait and see if that’s next on the list.”