Color of Hockey: Samuels-Thomas on track to become NHL referee

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Jordan Samuels-Thomas didn’t abandon his dream of skating in the NHL when he retired from playing professionally in 2020.

He’s just taking a different path to get there.

The 31-year-old native of West Hartford, Connecticut, who was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the second round (No. 203) of the 2009 NHL Draft, has made the transition from player to referee. 

Samuels-Thomas was among a group of new officials hired by the NHL in September. He’s on track to become the first Black NHL referee since former official Jay Sharrers wore the orange and black armbands during the New York Islanders’ 6-4 win at the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2, 2004.

Samuels-Thomas would become the NHL’s third Black on-ice official following Sharrers, who officiated his first game on Oct. 6, 1990, and Shandor Alphonso, who became a full-time linesman in October 2016.

“It’s a dream come true, sort of like being drafted again,” Samuels-Thomas said. “The opportunity to work or pursue being in the NHL is unbelievable and it’s something that I’ve been chasing since I was a little kid.”

Samuels-Thomas officiated in six NHL preseason games and will work the 2021-22 season in the American Hockey League, where he was the only Black official last season. 

He’s scheduled to start the season Saturday officiating a game between San Diego and Ontario, AHL teams he played for during a pro career that also made stops in the ECHL, Czech Republic, Germany and Croatia.

The AHL stints for Samuels-Thomas and the other new officials are for them to get “reps,” game experience to prepare them for the NHL.

“They all have the ability to go to the AHL to prove themselves in that league to get to the point to where they’re absolutely conquering the games in that league,” said Stephen Walkom, NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating, “no different than a player, in hopes of one day moving their way up to the NHL team.”

Samuels-Thomas methodically researched transitioning into officiating. He reached out to referee Corey Syvret and linesmen Travis Gawryletz and Alphonso, who successfully made the transition from players to NHL officials, for their advice. 

“I told him, in my humble opinion, that officiating was the best way to stay in the game because you’re right there in the game,” Alphonso said. “The main thing I said to him was, ‘Hey, give it a try and see if it’s something that’s for you.'”

Through Alphonso, Samuels-Thomas in 2020 contacted former NHL referee Mike Leggo, who lives near San Diego, where Samuels-Thomas and his family reside.

He asked Leggo, who officiated in more than 1,200 games from 1996-2017 and is now NHL Officiating Manager, Scouting & Development, to watch and critique his officiating of scrimmages of local Under-16 players.

“I said, ‘Hey, if you have the time, let’s get out there once a week, teach me everything that you think I need to know so when the opportunity does come that I’m ready to go,'” Samuels-Thomas said. 

Leggo was impressed by what he saw.

“He’s a sponge and took everything to heart,” said Leggo, who videoed Samuels-Thomas officiating. “The next times (on ice) he was self-correcting. He took giant leaps at the start and then now it’s the incremental stuff, learning about the nuance of the game, the gray areas.”

There were no gray areas when it came to Samuels-Thomas’ NHL ambition. He started playing hockey at 5, attracted by “The Mighty Ducks” movies and seeing “people like me playing hockey.”

He attended three different high schools, including Connecticut’s Canterbury School; played for Waterloo of the United States Hockey League from 2007-09, and split his collegiate career between Bowling Green State University and Quinnipiac University, all to position himself for the NHL.

A forward, Samuels-Thomas scored 104 points (50 goals, 54 assists) in 148 NCAA games. He turned pro after earning undergraduate and graduate journalism degrees. 

He scored 56 points (28 goals, 28 assists) in 195 AHL games with Rochester, Ontario and San Diego and 55 points (20 goals, 35 assists) in 69 ECHL games with Manchester, Utah, Florida, South Carolina and Worcester.

But by the 2017-18 season, he felt he was at a crossroads. He wasn’t getting any closer to his NHL dream and he wasn’t getting any younger.

“My skill set wasn’t necessarily for the NHL level to where the game was headed,” said Samuels-Thomas, who played at 6-foot-3, 188 pounds. “That’s kind of when I really kind of begun looking into what I wanted to do next after hockey.”

He started putting his journalism degrees to use by writing for The Athletic sports website and doing analysis on the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights for a San Diego television station.

Once Samuels-Thomas decided on officiating, he hasn’t looked back. He attended the NHL officials’ training camp in Buffalo in September, where he met Sharrers, who was there being honored by his former colleagues. 

“I sort of picked his brain on his experience as an official, not just as an official, but as an official of color,” Samuels-Thomas said. “As much as I want to fit in and be another one of the guys, whether as a hockey player or an official, I understand that there are going to be certain circumstances, challenges, that I might meet that others may not.”

Samuels-Thomas began working games in the USHL. His first game was in Green Bay, where he played his last game as a junior when he was with Waterloo in 2008-09.

“I worked, I think 11 games in the USHL last year and then five games in the North American Hockey League from November through December,” he said. “And when the AHL started, I had a full slate, but I also worked in the USHL once a weekend just to get extra reps. Every opportunity to get on the ice was an opportunity to get better.”

Sharrers, who officiated in 1,419 NHL regular season games (136 as a referee), 204 Stanley Cup Playoff games and seven Stanley Cup Finals before retiring in 2016 due to injury, said it would be a milestone if Samuels-Thomas reaches the NHL.

The significance isn’t lost on Samuels-Thomas.

“[Kids] see me out there or Shandor … I think that’s something really important and something I don’t lose sight of,” he said. “Because I know seeing Black players in the NHL made an impact on me pursuing the NHL.”

Photos: Hayat, San Diego Gulls; Qunnipiac University Athletics

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