GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Of the 436 registered hockey officials with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, only seven are female.
Two of those women, Melissa Sweers and Sara Strong — the most decorated of the group — are from West Michigan. Strong is the only woman ever to officiate a Michigan high school boys hockey state final.
“I love the game of hockey,” Strong said. “I watch hockey every night. I played growing up a lot. I love to skate. I love being on the ice.”
While both she and Sweers have helped break barriers, neither considers themselves a pioneer nor just ‘one of the guys,’ so to speak.
“I view myself as a female official,” Sweers said. “I’m not trying to be one of the guys at all. I’m trying to be the best person that I can be and the best official that I can be.”
==Above, watch and listen to Sweers and Strong on the ice.==
Both play the game as well, Sweers on travel teams around West Michigan and Strong on AAA clubs in metro Detroit.
“I grew up playing hockey my whole life,” Strong said. “I was born in Canada, so … you’re kind of born with skates on. Started skating at 2, playing hockey at 4 and played all growing up.”
Both closed out their formal playing careers on the women’s club team at Western Michigan University before putting on the stripes.
“For me, it originally started as a really great part-time job in college,” Strong recalled.
In addition to high school hockey, which Sweers has officiated for four years and Strong 12, both also officiate NCAA women’s hockey, American Collegiate Hockey Association club games and for USA hockey all across the country. Sweers has worked three national championship tournaments and Strong 10. Strong is also certified by the International Ice Hockey Federation and has officiated international and professional women’s games in France, China and Hungary.
“I didn’t even know all the possibilities and now I’ve been able to travel the world reffing hockey and I had no idea that was even an option,” Strong said. “That’s obviously been an unbelievable experience to be able to do that.”
In May, Strong will work at the IIHF World Women’s Championship in Nova Scotia, where she and others will be evaluated for a possible spot officiating at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“Honestly, I probably can’t even put into words what that would me to me, because I’ve spent the last 14 years working for it,” Strong said. “Everything I’ve been doing, working out two hours a day, eating, making sure my nutrition is on point, studying the rules, all of that is kind of leading up to this tournament.”
Despite their lofty credentials, each is often met with skepticism at high school games.
“I personally feel as soon as I step on the ice, I’m looked at significantly differently than if a male steps on the ice,” Sweers said. “I don’t know if it’s the hair or my size; I’m obviously not a big person.”
But don’t let their 5-foot-3 frames fool you. Both women are incredibly fit and knowledgeable about the game and its rules.
“It’s almost like they try to instantly challenge you, to see it you know what you’re talking about,” Sweers said. “And once they figure out that you do, then it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, she’s OK.'”
“I just try to think of myself and tell myself that I’m qualified and I deserve to be out there, and I can skate just as well as the guys and I know the game just as good as they do and there’s no reason to think of me differently,” she said. “So that’s kind of the mindset I go into each and every game. And we do have to work that much harder because we have to earn their respect.”
When Strong started officiating, she didn’t have any female role models to look up to. When Sweers began, she turned to Strong. Both now volunteer to work with and hope they can help and inspire other young women and girls to continue to chase their dreams — on or off the ice.