Rome native finds new goals in hockey

Published Apr 15, 2018 at 9:00am

Mackenzie Williams refereed the semifinals of the women’s college ice hockey Frozen Four on March 16 as Colgate beat Wisconsin 4-3 in double overtime. The game, which she called the best she’s ever officiated, is hopefully a stepping stone to even bigger goals.

Williams, age 27, is a kindergarten teacher at Staley Elementary School by day and a coach and referee in her off-time. She’s the head varsity field hockey coach at Rome Free Academy and has been moving up the ranks as an ice hockey official. Williams coaches in the fall and does not referee at that time. She officiates starting in April each year.

She played ice hockey and field hockey in high school. She is the eldest child, and her brothers Kyle and Tyler also played hockey. “I made the decision in 11th grade to playing field hockey in college,” she said. She was unable to be a two-sport athlete because of time commitment at the collegiate level, she added.

“I really still wanted to stay involved,” she said of ice hockey. So, she looked to being an official. “I tried it, and I fell in love with it” her senior year in high school.

USA Hockey, which oversees aspects of local youth hockey, requires an in-person seminar for things such as rules, positioning and communication with coaches and players. It also has tests to become certified. She did it all, and was assigned youth games in the youngest age groups. “Moved up through the youth programs as far as ages. By the end of the first season I realized I loved it.” At that level, officials work in pairs and the newest work alongside the veterans.

On the collegiate level, Williams just completed her third year at the Division I year and fifth at Division III.

On the international level, she has been licensed for six years. She traveled to Europe three years ago for a women’s tournament in Hungary and was the only American, as the teams were from Europe and one was from Japan. “There’s a little bit of a language barrier,” she said. The trip was enjoyable for both the hockey and the chance to enjoy Europe, she noted. “Obviously your focus is on the game,” but “when you’re not expected to be at the rink there’s usually a few off days to tour and see things that are known to be good to see in the area.” She went on a day trip in Budapest, she noted. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Besides the hockey you get to meet incredible women from all over the world” in coaching and officiating. The International Hockey Federation uses all-women officiating crews for women’s games, she noted, including the Olympics. “In the NCAA there are a lot less women.”

“The female world of officiating” can help you along, Williams said. “I’m at a place now” with her level of experience to “lend a helping hand.” She said it is an interesting time, with women’s success in hockey, where it has been supported in the U.S. The Americans winning Olympic gold in women’s ice hockey helped, she said.

When she works with male officials, she said, “I’ve never had a problem. They guys are very welcoming. They treat me like another guy, which is how I want it to be. I wouldn’t want it to be any different.” The crew she worked with in the Frozen Four was made up of three male officials.

Crews have to account for each member’s style, Williams said. The two referees are in charge of general supervision and are the officials who call penalties (though that responsibility can vary depending on the league) and the two linesmen enforce such violations as icing and offsides.

As a referee in a four-official system, she described her style. “I’m the type of person who won’t call a lot of penalties, who will let them play on. Unless the excitement of the game is getting out of hand. I let the players set the tone of the game.” Her positioning in college games tends to be behind the net in the offensive zone so the other referee can by elsewhere on the ice. She said her preference is that when a referee calls a minor penalty there is no consultation, but the two referees can talk it over when there’s a situation when there might be more penalties to call. For example, in the Frozen Four game, a player delivered a body check, an illegal check in women’s collegiate hockey, so when she saw it, she called it. There was a discussion about whether the hit could have earned the player more than a minor penalty. Since NCAA officials can review violations to see if there’s a major penalty, they did so in this case. “We wanted to get the call right.”

The Frozen Four is officiated by three crews, one for each game. The teams playing are the deterring factor in which crews work which games, assuring neutrality.

Williams’ rapid fire reaction to the game she officiated: “Unreal.” She called it “the best hockey game, especially in the NCAA, that I’ve ever done. The skill and pace of the game was the best of the weekend. It was fast, physical from the first puck drop to the overtime goal the players skated, skated hard. The atmosphere in the rink was incredible.” The two schools’ bands were going at it too, alternating songs, pumping up the fans in the sold out venue. She noted that the coaches were especially respectful of the officiating crew.

Williams said the assignment to the Frozen Four showed here that “hard work and dedication pays off.” She drove out to the Boston area every weekend all season to referee college games, an exhausting pace she hadn’t tried until this season.

“Every time I step on the ice I try to take my game to the next level so I’m always looking for higher level things to do.” She said her game assigner with Hockey East, the New England-based college ice hockey conference, who determines which officials work which games, has been a big help. “I have to earn it. I have to work hard and dedicate myself. I have to earn the respect from the coaches, my assigner and the NCAA coordinators.” Her assigner, Dave Lezenski, “was an important part of my support system this season because he believed in my abilities and provided new opportunities throughout the season that gave me experiences leading up to the Frozen Four.”

There is still one big opportunity Williams wants to earn. “My ultimate goal has always been to work the Olympics. My hope is that it might be the next round, 2022 in Beijing.” To be considered, she said, she’ll have to continue to work high level event such as the Frozen Four again. Williams, who is getting married in less than three months, said she ready for the challenge.