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Trailblazing local official Hiller is first female to work the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game (red division)

By Ross Forman, 04/18/23, 6:00PM CDT


With college and pro experience, Hiller dreams of Olympic (officiating) Glory

When the goalie covered the puck in that 2005 game at the YMCA in Lafayette, Colo., Samantha Hiller began wondering, ‘Where’s the whistle?’

After a few seconds, Hiller realized that, ugh, she was the one blowing the whistle.

Hiller was in her first-ever game as a hockey official.

“The hockey at that YMCA was youth club (level), which created a comfortable, supportive, learning environment for the first couple of seasons that I officiated. In retrospect, I’m very grateful for that,” she said. “The first few seasons were nerve-wracking because I was afraid to make mistakes, afraid to get yelled at, and just like doing anything for the first time, a new experience can be overwhelming.

“I knew that if I skated hard, tried my best with the knowledge and skills I had, and had fun, I was doing a few things right. Like I said, the rink I started officiating at was a safe place to be. I felt supported, parents and coaches were always encouraging me, and the people involved understood that I was just beginning. The first years were challenging, but those challenges made me want to be better.”

And boy has Hiller improved – and shined over the past 18 years. Just consider some highlights from her hockey officiating resume:

  • Her first IIHF event in Beijing, China, which also was the first time she had ever been out of the country.
  • She has worked boys' varsity high school hockey state finals in both Colorado and Illinois.
  • She worked the gold medal game at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
  • Her first game in the AHL – in Chicago on October 23, 2021.
  • Working a Rivalry Series game (USA vs. Canada) at Climate Pledge Arena in front of a record attendance for a national women’s hockey game in the U.S. (14,551).
  • Officiating the 2019 Women’s Division III Frozen Four Championships in St. Paul, Minn.

“I feel a responsibility and commitment to my officiating community being in the position I’m in now,” Hiller said. “As much as I can, I try to take on the role of an officiating mentor. I want to skate with, evaluate and instruct newer officials because I love sharing the knowledge I have and watching others grow.

“There are a lot of games I work (when) I hope other girls or women are watching and saying to themselves, ‘Wow, I didn’t know officiating was an option. I want to skate. I want to be a part of this.’ I want them to know that these incredible experiences are out there, waiting to be had, and that officiating has endless opportunities. The game is evolving and I enjoy sharing the love and passion I have for officiating with those who see me or cross paths with me.”

Hiller, 30, lives in Gurnee and works as a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the Lake Forest Fire Department. She has lived in the Chicago area for almost six years – and is a Level 4 official.

She worked about 70 games this past season, spread between professional, Division III college and the local high school hockey.

In fact, Hiller was one of the referees for the 2023 Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game (red division), which saw New Trier Green capture the title – she was the first-ever female to officiate the red division final.

“I was shocked,” to be selected to officiate the red division final, Hiller said. “This was a goal I had hoped to accomplish one day and when I got the phone call, I was blown away. It is a great honor to have been selected and I am incredibly grateful for the support of my officiating community.

“The game went by so quickly. I think, if you ask most officials who have worked such an event, they will say the same. You try to hold onto every minute and soak it in. I loved my crew and that made it a wonderful experience from start to finish. The coaches and players were great; the game had some exciting moments and it was clean. I will say, being on the ice, just a few feet away from Jim Cornelison during the National Anthem was an emotional moment for me. That really set the tone for the entire evening and just how special it was.”

Hiller added: “When I moved to Illinois and realized that working the red game hadn’t been done by a female official before, I made it a goal of mine to work the red division final and open that door for other women in the future. It was exciting and heartwarming to be given the opportunity to make this dream a reality. Without the support of my local officiating association, my friends, my family, and the mentors I’ve had along the way, I never would have been in this position. I am fortunate to have such wonderful people in my corner.”

In 2019, Hiller officiated the combined division Illinois High School State Championship game, also played at the United Center.

“I (am) awestruck by the production of the Illinois High School State Championship Game – the lights, the music, the professionalism of the United Center staff, the support of the local officials, and the fans,” Hiller said. “That (2019 game) was the biggest crowd I had ever skated in front of and the first few strides I took on the ice, I just remember my heart pounding through my chest; I was so excited. I also had a great crew and it was just a fun game overall.”

Hiller’s career has included many other memorable moments. Consider:

  • She’s worked 6 IIHF events.
  • She officiates in the AHL, NCAA, PWHPA (women’s pro), PHF (women’s pro), and numerous junior leagues.
  • And youth hockey, too.

What’s left?

Well, she wants to officiate the 2026 Winter Olympics, and more.

“When I was playing youth hockey at the YMCA in Lafayette, Colorado, there was a father-daughter duo that would officiate my games – and the two of them encouraged me to give officiating a shot,” Hiller said. “It started out to make money and get more ice time. Several years after that, I got invited to my first officiating camp in the Rocky Mountain District which was fun, eye-opening and challenging. I took what I learned, tried to apply that knowledge back home, and a couple of years later, I attended USA Hockey’s Regional Development Camp. After I attended that week-long camp, I truly fell in love with officiating and embraced the possibilities and opportunities that I had in front of me. 

“When I was playing, I was certain that I would play college hockey and that was my focus until I went to regional camp (for officiating). Since then, all my dreams and goals have revolved around officiating.”

A few months after the regional camp, while attending school in Minnesota, she was confused, wondering ‘What’s Next?’

Then the phone rang – from the supervisor of officials for one of the women’s college hockey associations. He asked Hiller, “Do you want to work in the NCAA?”

She was shocked. “I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t how I initially imagined my college hockey experience to be, but I began my college hockey career as an official and that was where I found my place in the game,” she said.

“IHOA has been supportive of me since the beginning. I used to come to Chicago for the Bauer Invitational (each November) and I always felt that I was a part of this tight-knit community. There are so many people in the association who want the best for the officials and they don’t just say it, they show it. Having a strong association that promotes a safe, open and supportive environment has been incredibly important for my success as an official.”

Hiller added, “I have been blessed with an enormous amount of fellow officials and mentors who have had a positive impact on my career. If it weren’t for all of them, I would not be where I am today. To name just a few, Butch Mousseau, Ceci Strom, Erin Blair-Gnagni, Jackie Wilson, Carl Sassolino, Seth Mukai, Dan Schachte, John Cerza, Brad Baumruck, Ed Zepeda, Jim Olson, Scott Gaffney, Brett Straley, Sue Halpern, Ron Groothedde, Chris Lindley, Steve Rickard, Melissa Orr-Szkola, Tim Richter, and many, many more.”

Center-Ice Faceoff With … Referee Samantha Hiller

Best Part of Officiating: “The people … my officiating family is everything.” 

Worst Part of Officiating: “The abuse … it doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it can really put a damper on a fun game.”

To Others Who Are Thinking About Officiating: “Officiating is truly a hidden gem. If you love the game and want to be a part of it or find a way to stay in it after you’re done playing, this is it. The places you go, the people you meet, the games you’re front seat to … there’s nothing quite like it. If you’re thinking about it, try it. You never know what might happen.”

Officiating Superstitions: “My pre-game nap is really important and I follow that with a large coffee. I also wear fuzzy socks in my skates which, to me, feel like skating on a cloud. But the people who know this about me think I’m crazy.”