EDMOND, Okla. — Linda Cuccio wants to see how far 200 feet can take her.
She spends her weekday hours behind the counter at Arctic Edge Ice Arena, where there are few customers during school hours. The time passes slowly as she waits for her next chance to pull a black-and-white-striped polyester jersey over her head and braid the waist-length hair that will extend from the nicked black helmet.
At 27, she’s late to the game. Most ice hockey referees who want to make a career of it have a decade or more of experience by that age, but she’s counting on exposure to the game and strong skills from her figure skating background to get her there.
Where that might be isn’t completely clear. Her aspirations reach to the highest levels of amateur competition, officiating in USA Hockey national tournaments and International Ice Hockey Federation games.
She’s been skating since she was 5 years old, competed regionally as a figure skater and worked as an Ice Girl for the Oklahoma City Barons during their five-season run from 2010-2015. But she’s in just her second season as an on-ice official, trading axels and lutzes for the constant sprint-stop-sprint of hockey on a 200-foot sheet of ice.
“I wish I’d started 13 years ago,” she said.
Almost all career officials start in their mid-teens and get the chance to develop between ages 18 and 25, but Cuccio looks to Melissa Szkola for inspiration. Another convert from figure skating, Szkola didn’t start officiating until her mid-twenties. Her skating skills paved the way; after a decade of work, she was selected as a referee for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Cuccio knows the Olympics are a long way off, so, for now, the Edmond resident is building her officiating résumé by working local youth and recreational adult games on weeknights and weekends. She gets noticed; Cuccio is the only female ice hockey official in Oklahoma and one of just 146 in USA Hockey’s Rocky Mountain District, which includes Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and four other states. There are 1,927 men.
She’s getting support from the local officials association and was invited to the 2019 women’s Rocky Mountain District Development Camp in Colorado, where aspiring women officials train and work games played by the girls and young women on the first leg of a journey that could lead to the national team roster.
“We had those four days of just living and breathing officiating,” Cuccio said. “That was a great experience.”
Opportunities on the rise
No woman has ever officiated a National Hockey League game, but that will change. With the advent of the National Women’s Hockey League in 2015 — the first women’s league to pay players’ salaries — and the success of the U.S. women’s national team, gender diversity in the game is broadening quickly. The number of women and girls registered as players has increased since 2007 from about 150,000 to 200,000.
“The girls’ and women’s game has been pretty remarkable over the last 20 years, starting with the 1998 gold medal team,” said Matt Leaf, the director of USA Hockey’s officiating education program. “The growth has been pretty well documented, and the officiating has generally followed suit.”
Leaf said women coming into the game have a good chance to be fast-tracked to high-level games. After a year or two of officiating, women can attend a district development camp, potentially followed a year later by an invitation to the national prospects camp. Depending on a candidate’s performance, that can lead to working national tournaments, NCAA games, the NWHL or international competition.
And women bring a different attitude to the job.
Checking the ego
“The women come in without the ego,” Leaf said. “They’re so focused on the education and becoming a better official — they just want to learn. When they get feedback they don’t take it personally. To them, it’s just a way for them to get better.”
Women face challenges men don’t; USA Hockey’s hierarchy doesn’t like it, but there are pockets of sexism where players and parents object to women officiating boys’ and men’s games. By the time women rise to a level at which they might be considered for hockey’s elite games, they’ve already overcome those challenges.
“They’re competing for spots in our international program and the Olympics,” Leaf said. “But the way they come together and pull for each other? That’s different than the men’s side.”
Cuccio doesn’t talk about her status; as Leaf observed, she talks about how much she can learn. But opportunities in Oklahoma are limited.
“There’s not a whole lot of women’s hockey in this area,” said Paul Mariconda, the state’s supervisor of officials. “It will be a challenge for her to find higher-level women’s games to officiate without traveling a lot, but that’s true for men, too. If you want to move to the highest levels, you’re going to need some significant experience.”
Mariconda said that hustle and effort make up for a lot of mistakes, and caring about the job can mean more than playing experience.
Everybody’s a critic
Her skating skills help, but Cuccio is still learning to manage a game, polish her mechanics, and make calls with certainty.
“I knew what I was getting into,” she said. “But when you’re on the ice you have to keep track of everything — it’s a little bit more than you think it will be. And I don’t think I underestimated the interaction with the teams, but the amount of chirping from the benches was a surprise.”
The chirping — loudly and sometimes colorfully expressed complaints from the bench — can be vicious. In addition to thickening her skin, she’s learned that an on-ice official can’t wallow in a mistake; the puck keeps moving.
Cuccio said she hopes to get good enough to be asked to work junior and college games locally for the American Collegiate Hockey Association, which includes UCO and OU, and the Western States Hockey League, which includes the Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers.
It will take a lot of work, and her big green eyes looked into the distance.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get there,” she said.