Jessica Leclerc, 32, of Sanford is one of four American women selected to officiate women’s hockey in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. “It’s absolutely an amazing feeling,” Leclerc said. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Jessica Leclerc got the invitation of a lifetime last month.

That’s when the Augusta native learned she would be officiating women’s hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Leclerc, 32, will be one of only four American women to serve as an on-ice official during the women’s tournament, which opens Feb. 10 with preliminary round games.

The Cony High School graduate was one of 19 women worldwide selected in November by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to officiate the eight-team women’s tournament in South Korea. She is the only American among the nine linesmen selected.

“It’s absolutely an amazing feeling to know that the hard work and dedication I’ve put in has paid off,” said Leclerc, who started officiating youth games as a 12-year-old at the former Kennebec Ice Arena in Hallowell. “It’s a chance to continue to be a competitive athlete in a very different way.”

Leclerc, a Sanford resident, is a leader in youth hockey officiating in the state, serving as referee in chief for the Maine Amateur Hockey Association. She estimates that she officiates 15-20 games a month, from the NCAA Division III level – men and women – to junior league, high school and women’s professional hockey. Almost all of her refereeing takes place in Maine or Massachusetts.

“Even though it feels like I’ve been refereeing for a gazillion years,” Leclerc said, “the reality is that my international journey has been relatively short in the grand scheme of most people’s journeys.”

Leclerc was invited to be part of an on-ice crew for the 2015 Under-18 Women’s World Championships in Buffalo, New York, after another official couldn’t commit to the weeklong assignment. Leclerc seized on the opportunity and opened some eyes that ultimately cleared a path to the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, where Team USA defeated rival Canada 3-2 in overtime. Leclerc worked quarterfinal and semifinal round games at those April championships, in addition to the Finland-Germany bronze medal game.

Jess Leclerc skates for Cony in a game in 2001. Staff file photo

“That’s where I started my international career (at the U18 level), which is not the traditional way to do it,” Leclerc said, laughing as she recalled the experience. “Normally, you start out by going to tournaments in countries with teams you’ve never heard of. You go to Turkey – ‘Turkey has a team?’ – or you go to Mexico – ‘Mexico has ice hockey?’ – and you work your way up from there.

“You don’t start out with teams like the U.S. or Canada.”

But that’s what Leclerc did.

RAISING THE BAR

Her parents, Alain and Louise Leclerc, live in Augusta. Alain Leclerc said their daughter always has been motivated, from her days skating for Cony and, later, at Deerfield Academy, where she graduated in 2004.

“I remember that she was 8 years old when she started skating,” her father said. “Her older brother was 11 and her younger brother was 5 at the time. She would say, ‘If the boys can skate, I can skate, too.’ Over the years, she got ahead of them.”

Jess Leclerc, a Cony High School graduate, works a game at the Biddeford Ice Arena in January. Leclerc will officiate some women’s hockey games at the 2018 Olympics. Photo by Tammy Belanger Photography

Leclerc played for the University of Maine in 2004-05, before transferring to Utica (N.Y.) College. She skated for the Pioneers until graduating in 2009. Her playing days over, Leclerc continued to officiate, honing her craft at the college level.

Today, she officiates North American Hockey League and NCAA Division III men’s games to challenge herself at a faster pace – and a higher level than she was able to play at.

She’s attended officiating camps at USA Hockey’s Olympic Development Program in Michigan, refereed an Olympic qualifying tournament in Japan, gone to Switzerland in the summer for a pre-Olympic training camp, and driven to and from the greater Boston area more times than she can count. At every stop, the goal was the same: keep improving.

USA Hockey and the IIHF took notice. Potential Olympic officials are evaluated on their on-ice competency in international tournaments and their dedication to the game off the ice, Leclerc said.

“The last two years, it became, ‘Can I make a run at the Olympics?’ Then I saw that, yes, this could be possible,” said Leclerc, who was on a list of finalists issued by the IIHF in October. “Even still, it’s not my personality to say, ‘If I don’t make it to the Olympics, then I’m not a good referee.’

“It’s been: ‘I can do this, I can work toward it.’ Because the reality is that not many people get picked to go.”

‘SHE HAS A STRONG CHARACTER’

Alain Leclerc says there are several reasons why his daughter encountered success on the ice as an official. First, as part of a working-class family, she needed a job to help her pay for college, so she continued refereeing throughout her own playing career. Alain Leclerc also said that Utica College introduced her to a network of people in the field that she otherwise wouldn’t have met.

“Honestly, we never thought she’d get this far,” he said. “We figured she’d go to college and give it up after, get a normal life with a normal job and a daily routine. It didn’t happen that way. She has a strong character. Once she gets something in her mind, it doesn’t go away.”

And now the big Olympic stage awaits.

“I’m just a girl from Maine,” Leclerc said. “I’m fortunate that I get to go. I always saw (refereeing) as a great opportunity to stay involved in hockey, a game I absolutely love and always have, It’s always been a big part of my life.

“To know that I’m one of the very few people that gets to go and have this experience, it’s very humbling.”