Samantha Cebulski has taken quite a unique route to the rink in this, her ninth season as a hockey official, as one of only nine female top-tiered Level 4 officials in Illinois.
She never played hockey growing up. Instead, she was a figure skater for about 15 years, but retired in college due to an injury – and she didn’t start playing hockey until well after graduating from college. Her husband was playing in an adult league at the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva and there was a female on the team who, in 2012, recruited Cebulski to play for a senior women’s team.
“My husband and dad both officiated for a short and one day my husband said I should give (officiating) a try,” said Cebulski, who was immediately reluctant, mostly because her limited playing experience was low-level senior women’s.
Her husband was persistent and persuasive.
“I found out there was an all-female (pre-season) seminar, so that took (away) some stress,” Cebulski said. “After (registering), I thought (officiating) would be a good challenge and something new and exciting. I wasn’t really invested into it when I first signed up but figured I could try doing a game and two, (then) would quit soon after.”
Her first-ever game as an official was in Geneva – for either a squirt bronze or squirt silver level, though she doesn’t recall almost a decade later.
“I have one picture from that game that my husband took, and I thought my sweater was much too big on me,” she said, noting she was wearing a referee shirt that was her dad’s.
“I was a deer-in-headlights during that game and felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I recall lining up backwards on an offside faceoff, but other than that I don’t remember much (more).”
That first-ever game was “really tough,” she said, now recalling that she was contemplating retiring after game one.
“I was about a month in (to my officiating career) and the coaches were incredibly disrespectful. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time I threw out a coach, and I vowed to never work a game again. After that game, my husband gave me a really good pep talk and basically told me to shake it off and learn from it. I gave it another try and ended up with a great season,” she said.
“I registered (to officiate) on a whim and (with) a lot of persuasion, but never in a million years thought I would become an official.”
Flash-forward to 2023. The 33-year-old Cebulski is still calling penalties and whistling down offsides and icing. The Geneva resident who is an account manager for Ecolab also is a director for IHOA’s board – and is already assisting in seminar planning for the 2023-24 season.
She officiated the USA Hockey Futures Camp in 2018 and the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCAA Division III) Slaats Cup conference championships in 2019 and 2020. She was invited to USA Hockey Nationals in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Cebulski also has officiated the AHAI Girls High School State Championship Game.
This season, she has worked NCHA games and the USA Hockey National Invitational Tournament this past October, with 16U and 19U girls, held in Blaine, Minn. “It is always a great event and I love seeing friends from across the country as well as meeting new ones, she said.
Cebulski has officiate local high school games as well as 16U and 18U games. She mostly officiates at Fox Valley Ice Arena, All Seasons Ice Arena in Naperville, Rocket Ice Rink in Bolingbrook, and the Leafs Ice Centre in Dundee.
“I remember when I heard about this figure skater-turned-official. She was in our development program and received her first ref spot in a midget major game,” said IHOA referee-in-chief Brad Baumruck. “I was a linesman (for that game).
“She was so scared; she was jabbering as fast as a NASCAR driver. When we hit the ice, that all changed; she zoned in and was successful. Afterwards we had a conversation about what could be done differently.
“She has since gone on to work national championships and works the NCHA. She gives back to our community as an IHOA board member and a female ambassador to all female officials in Illinois.
“I could sit here for an hour talking about how awesome Sam is for the new officials, but short and sweet, Sam is great.”
Cebulski admitted, yes, there is added pressure as a female official, including self-imposed expectations. “I hold myself to a really high standard and expect perfection, sometimes to a fault,” she said. “I want to show younger or newer females that officiating brings so many opportunities and experiences.
“(That said), it can be a challenge being in a male-dominated field. I feel like we have to prove our worth much more than our male counterparts, and there are a lot of times when it can be difficult seeing deserving girls and women get overlooked. There are still many coaches, players, and parents who think women shouldn’t be working men’s games and that is sometimes hard to overcome.”
This official also is a mom. Her daughter, Charlotte, is about 18 months old.
“I want to show my daughter that she is able to do whatever she wants, as long as she works hard and is kind in the process,” Cebulski said. “I haven’t skated much this year as I want to spend quality family time, but I try to get out as much as possible. My husband is crazy supportive and brings our daughter to as many games as possible. She loves watching. My first game back after having my daughter was a 12U girl’s game. I was three months post-partum after c-section – not my best choice. I had no balance whatsoever.”
Cebulski has been a part of ADP, “where I learned a ton and met some great people,” she said. “I was in the program for two years and got many opportunities to see more advanced games that I typically would. It helped to build my confidence and realize that I didn’t suck at officiating and kind of enjoyed the craziness.”
She praised the support she’s received from IHOA, particularly from Baumruck, Blair, Joe Guzzardi and Carl Sassolino.
“Brad and Joe were my instructors while in ADP and I learned a ton from both of them and also was able to get helpful advice in the process. Carl took a chance on me to be involved in the mentoring program in my second year and I am still grateful for that chance. Erin paved a path for women in general. She pushed me to get to where I am today and was able to push me to camp, which opened more doors.”
Offsides With … IHOA Official
Officiating Superstitions: “I always get dressed left to right; this dates back to my figure skating days. Before any of my puck drops, I always tap the puck twice on my shin pad.”
One Shining Moment: “My state championship game at the United Center. I had never refereed in the three-official system prior to this day and I still wonder why I was selected. It was a fun experience and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity.”
It’s A Fact: “I am a type 1 diabetic, so dealing with a chronic illness can be a challenge while working games. I am always prepared so don’t be shocked if you see me eating fruit snacks or glucose tabs while in a game.”