Trailblazing Illinois official Brown steps down as Central District RIC, moves to Texas
By Ross Forman – Sjoukje Brown was a senior in high school, ready to officiate her first game as a hockey referee. She was nervous, really nervous, but her family was there to support her.
She was, after all, a “novelty” 34 years ago, as there were no other females officiating in Illinois at the time.
Photos courtesy of Sjoukje Brown
Brown was officiating a peewee game at Barrington Ice Arena and at one point she whistled offsides … on a breakaway.
Needless to say, the crowd was not too pleased.
Brown, though, survived this officiating glitch and tried to learn something new each time she took the ice. And she did.
“I loved the challenge of being in position and applying the rules correctly. Skating and making a little money were great, too,” Brown said. “I had a lot of patient and knowledgeable mentors who realized that I was capable of doing this. They invested their time and effort in helping me develop as an official so I could reach personal goals in officiating. I took the time to understand the rules and prided myself on knowing the rulebook. I worked hard, took every game I could, and always hustled to be in position. I did not turn games back unless it was an absolute emergency; I was afraid I wouldn’t get (future) games if I turned back (games).
“For me, officiating was something I was being paid to do, and I needed to act as a professional. My on-ice career has taken me to many places I never would have seen otherwise and has introduced me to lifelong friends and (my) hockey family. I would do it all again if given the chance.”
Brown, now 51, was an Illinois hockey legend, one of the best-ever wearing black and white. Not just the best-ever female official, the best-ever, period.
She shined on the ice in Illinois and beyond. She was, for instance, on the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the 1994 World Championships, marking her first international event. Her first game was with a Swiss referee and a German linesman for a game between Norway and Sweden. Brown also officiated in the USHL, the first female to officiate at that level.
Plus, Brown’s on-ice resume includes the NCAA Frozen Four tournament – four of them, to be exact, all as a referee.
“Hands down, Sjoukje was the best female official in Illinois hockey history,” said longtime Illinois official Jack Raslawski. “She was outstanding. Her control, her demeanor, her communication with players and coaches … they were all outstanding, the best I have ever seen, along with Scott Brand.”
Photos courtesy of Sjoukje Brown
Brown lived in Illinois since she was in third grade and most recently lived in South Elgin, serving as the principal at Fox Meadow Elementary School.
She also was the Central District Referee-in-Chief for six years – another female first.
“Sjoukje worked tirelessly as the Central District Referee-in-Chief,” said Steven Rickard, IHOA President.
Brown stepped down from the USA Hockey post this summer and said goodbye to Illinois. She moved to Round Rock, Texas, after accepting a job as the assistant principal at Mott Elementary School.
She loves Illinois hockey, particularly from the officials’ point of view. Always will.
But family said the move south was a good call.
Brown’s daughter, Tenley, 5, is starting kindergarten in the fall. And Brown’s mom suffered a stroke last December.
Her extended family lives in Texas and that’s where she wants to be now – around them, for herself and Tenley.
After all, Brown is a mom, first and foremost, which she acknowledges is “exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, and the best job in the world.”
“Family is everything,” said Brown who will, though, be teaching skating classes on weekends at the rink in Cedar Park, Texas, and probably will help with the Austin officiating group in some capacity. “I am taking some time off to get to know my new surroundings, connect with my extended family here, and spend time on my career.
“I appreciate the opportunity I was afforded (through officiating) and hope that I left things in a better state than when I came into the role. I wish everyone the best in their roles in hockey and hope to see (everyone again) in a rink somewhere, sometime.”
Photos courtesy of Sjoukje Brown
Brown said she is grateful to AHAI and IHOA for all the opportunities, trust, and support over the years. And Illinois hockey means “everything” to Brown, she said.
“With the support of schedulers like Bob Updike, Steve Cohen, Ken Michel and Don Olynyk, I was able to work a ton of hockey in my early years and hone my skills,” she said. “There are so many mentors and partners who I learned from … too many to mention. I can honestly say that I never felt ‘less than.’ I remember stories from other female officials I met at tournaments about the lack of support they had in their districts. I can honestly say I never felt that. I owe everything to Illinois officiating.”
That’s why she knows what she’ll miss the most from Illinois: the people.
“There are far too many people to mention here. Luckily, they know who they are and how I feel,” she said. “My brothers and sisters in officiating. We are a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless.”
Brown’s officiating career was cut short due to knee issues. She had no articular cartilage left in her knees and needed cartilage transplants. She has had one knee replaced and is waiting to have the other one done.
Her last game officiating was a Women’s WCHA Division I College Series: Bemidji State University vs. Wisconsin. “If I had known these would be my last two games, I would have taken more time to enjoy the little things and let things soak in a bit,” she said. “I was having knee pain and ended up having surgery shortly after this series. The nature of the surgery ended my career.”
But what a career it was. Brown, for instance, officiated her first U.S. vs. Canada game in 1997 in Utah.
“Women’s hockey was a first-time Olympic sport at the 1998 Games in Nagano, and the (1997) series was hyped nation-wide. This game was the first game in a 13-game pre-Olympic series played between the U.S. and Canada, and the U.S. won in a shoot-out.”
Cammi Granato scored top shelf and the place went nuts.
Fans were chanting USA, USA, USA throughout the game.
“The environment was electric; it was so incredible to see such great hockey from the best seats in the house – on the ice,” Brown said.
Brown was an integral member of IHOA’s board for eight years, and her role leading the annual pre-season seminars for five years was one of her greatest contributions to the local officiating community.
She moved into the Central District RIC position following the path set by Chet Stewart, Bill Spohn, Dave LaBuda, Bob Cunningham and other high-profile names.
“I feel so privileged to have served,” as the Central District RIC, Brown said. “I came into this role after 20 months of stepping away from hockey to assist my dad in his battle against cancer. It was nice to return to the officiating world and I was excited about this challenge. We have a wonderful group of volunteers in each affiliate of the Central District, and we all work so well together. We are supportive, collaborative and dedicated.
“It has been a highlight in my life to work alongside these people over the past six years.
“We have done some heavy lifting and I am indebted to the Central District staff for their help. I think we have accomplished a great deal, and I am sorry that I won’t be a part of the next steps we planned together.”
Brown added: “I am so fortunate that I was chosen by our affiliate presidents for this role. I have always been treated with respect in our district and am so proud to say that my appointment in this role may lead the way for others. We have many qualified female officials who would make outstanding administrators and I am thrilled to have been a part of that. I always feel that when someone is the ‘first’ of anything, they have a responsibility to work as hard as possible and make the best impression they can. As a ‘first,’ a person sets the bar for everyone else. If the bar is not high, it is not fair to those who may be next. I am so proud to have been part of so many firsts.”
Brown’s legacy nationally also includes being a member of a three-person sub-committee that wrote the job description for the first-ever Women’s National Referee-in-Chief, just approved by USA Hockey. “To be an active part of ensuring that female officials will have equitable representation as well as a female voice to speak on their behalf is a great accomplishment,” she said.