by Sal Maiorana Democrat and Chronicle February 4, 2014
If everything had fallen into place the way Chris Woodworth envisioned when he was a young boy growing up in Canandaigua, he'd be an NHL star getting ready to play on the United States team in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
After all, "I don't think anybody grows up wanting to be an official, it's just something that's in your chemical makeup, I think," Woodworth said with a smile. "And once you get your foot in the door, it becomes part of you, but I do think you have to have a screw loose in your head in order to want to be an official."
Be that as it may, the 33-year-old Woodworth knew by the time he was 13, that a playing career in pro hockey was out of the question, so he turned to officiating. Because he has become one of the best in the country, he'll be journeying to Sochi, Russia this week to serve as a linesman in the Olympic tournament.
"This is nice because it validates that you're a solid official, you're world class, and a lot of hard work went into getting to this point, so it's very special," Woodworth said.
Laura Johnson feels the same way.
The 28-year-old, who was born in Las Vegas, grew up in the suburbs of Dallas and now calls Irondequoit her home, is also heading to Sochi, where she will work the lines in the women's Olympic tournament.
"It's definitely a lifetime goal that I'm reaching, and it's totally surreal to me," said Johnson, who moved here two years ago because of the ample hockey officiating opportunities. "As a kid I watched the Olympics and I never dreamed that I'd actually go to an Olympics, let alone work in the Olympics."
Woodworth and Johnson are part of a Rochester hockey triumvirate in Sochi as Greece's Ryan Callahan, captain of the New York Rangers, is competing in his second Olympics as a member of Team USA.
But while Callahan will be one of the most visible players on the United States team, Woodworth and Johnson will try their best to be as inconspicuous as possible because that's the goal of every official in every sport.
"I know that these girls have trained hard and they're the best of the best," Johnson said of the Olympic players, "but I know I've trained hard myself and the officials I'll be working with are the best of the best. I know the rules, I know where I need to be, and I feel comfortable."
Woodworth played youth hockey and in high school at Canandaigua, but he did not make the team when he went to college at Geneseo, "Which was probably a good thing because it forced me to take the officiating a little more seriously," he said.
He had been working in area youth leagues and was slowly climbing his way through the ranks, but because he was so young it was difficult to get steady opportunities. Finally, when he was 20 years old, he was chosen to work a national championship tournament held at what is now called the Bill Gray's Regional IcePlex, a facility where today he serves as general manager.
From there, he was invited to a development camp, and when he impressed the instructors, his career mushroomed. He got regular assignments in the North American Junior League, the Central Hockey League — which is a feeder to the American Hockey League — and then, ultimately, the AHL.
"I came home and knew I was ready to go into the American league and knew it wasn't going to be handed to me, so I wrote a letter to the director of officiating to introduce myself," Woodworth recalled. "I told him I'm ready, and I can live in Rochester. I got a tryout, a preseason game between Syracuse and Rochester eight years ago. He came, saw the game, and I ended up getting hired."
Woodworth's goal was to make it to the NHL, and in that pursuit there were years when he would work as many as 120 games, driving 50,000 miles a year and flying perhaps 60,000 miles.
"I was chasing the NHL dream pretty hard so I was on the road constantly," he said. "I missed a lot of funerals, births, weddings, and the lifestyle is very difficult and the travel is very difficult. It burned me out."
Alas, the NHL never called, and now Woodworth has scaled back to the point where he works about 20 AHL games per season while he operates the IcePlex located on the campus of Monroe Community College. He is also an instructor at several USA Hockey-sanctioned camps, one of which is his own here in Rochester.
As for his Olympic assignment, the seeds were planted four years ago when he attended an international camp at Lake Placid. He was chosen for two major tournaments but missed both due to injury before finally working the World Junior Championships in Calgary two years ago.
That earned him an invite to a pre-Olympic camp in Switzerland where he spent a month in 2012, and his appointment to Sochi was based on his performance there.
"It'll be pretty cool," said Woodworth, who served at the 2013 World Championships in Sweden and Finland. "To have all the top players in the world on one stage, I've never seen anything close to that so it'll be pretty special. But this is my third international tournament, they're all run exactly the same, so it will basically be like another day at the office."
Johnson traveled a slightly more circuitous path to Sochi. She grew up outside Dallas, not exactly a women's hockey hotbed, even after the NHL's Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup and the game's popularity grew.
"I had an interest to play, but just didn't have the opportunity," said Johnson, who played plenty of street hockey on rollerblades but didn't start ice skating until she was 15. "The nearest rink to me was where the Stars practiced about 45 minutes to an hour away, plus it was so expensive."
Johnson turned to music and art and played flute and piano proficiently, but hockey was always on her mind. Her father is from Plattsburgh and was a big fan of the game, and he and his daughter reveled in the Stars' defeat of the Buffalo Sabres in the '99 Finals.
Her first job was at a skating rink outside Dallas as an on-ice guard, and it was there that she developed the skills she needed to ultimately go play hockey at Concordia College in Minnesota for two years, with an eye toward eventually becoming an official.
"I was a third liner, not great hands, but always a strong skater," she said. "My supervisors for officiating, before college they told me, 'You need to go play, and then when you're done, go focus on officiating.' "
After college, she moved to St. Louis to begin that endeavor, and worked junior leagues, high schools, and Division I and Division III college, which led to her first big-time international events, the 2008 World University Games in China, and an Under-18 world tournament in Sweden in 2010.
The move to Rochester was simply the next step in her career because there were even more opportunities to work, plus she had an affinity for the area. Her mother is from Seneca Falls, and the family made frequent trips here while her grandparents were alive. "I always fell in love with New York every time I came here," she said. "I love the trees, the outdoors, and the four seasons."
Johnson has worked Section V boys and girls games, Division I and III college (including the Frozen Frontier last month), and her outstanding evaluations keyed her selection for the Women's World Championship events in Burlington, Vt. (2012) and Ottawa, Ontario (2013), and now, the Olympics.
"It's exciting," said Johnson, who will turn 29 while she's in Russia. "It became apparent to me six years ago that I could make the Olympics. Before that I just wanted to keep working at the highest level I could."
Woodworth met Johnson two years ago when she officiated a tournament at the IcePlex and they have become good friends who will be sharing a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"We've adopted her in Rochester," Woodworth said. "We're not a huge city, but it's a hotbed for hockey officials. We have a lot of young guys that right now are our working minor league and living all over the country. We're looked upon as a source for good officials."