Two black on-ice officials worked together for the first time in NHL history Thursday.
Referee Jordan Samuels-Thomas and linesman Shandor Alphonso officiated the Chicago Blackhawks’ 5-4 shootout victory over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center in Chicago. The game was Samuels-Thomas’ NHL debut and the first time a black on-ice official has worn the orange and black referee armbands since Jay Sharrers appeared in the New York Islanders-Carolina Hurricanes game at Carolina on 2 April 2004.
Sharrers, who became the NHL’s first black-on-ice official on Oct. 6, 1990, when the Quebec Nordiques played against the Boston Bruins, was also at the United Center Thursday, serving as the managing official.
“It was a lot of fun,” Samuels-Thomas said. “Growing up, all you want to do is be in the NHL, and I’m 31 and it’s been a lifetime of work and I had all my family here in the stands and friends and all those who have been with me along the way. So special to share this moment with them.”
Samuels-Thomas wore No. 42, which was worn by Jackie Robinson, who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“When I played I was No. 42 for a reason, and with the opportunity to wear that number [it] was easy,” Samuels-Thomas said. “…Being able to wear Jackie’s number is always special, so I have to do it as a player and now as an official. I wish I could keep this number forever.”
Samuels-Thomas was among a group of officials hired by the NHL in September. He refereed six NHL preseason games and spent most of this season and last working in the American Hockey League.
The 31-year-old West Hartford, Connecticut native dreamed of playing in the NHL. A forward, Samuels-Thomas played for Waterloo in the United States Hockey League from 2007 to 2009 and split his college career between Bowling Green State University and Quinnipiac University.
He was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the seventh round (No. 203) of the 2009 NHL Draft, but has never played in the NHL.
Instead, Samuels-Thomas found steady work in the minor leagues. He had 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, Carolina South and Worcester.
But he still wanted to make the NHL. He methodically researched the transition to officiating and reached out to referee Corey Syvret and linesmen Travis Gawryletz and Alphonso, who each successfully transitioned from player to NHL official, for their advice.
“I told him, in my humble opinion, officiating was the best way to stay in the game because you’re there in the game,” Alphonso told NHL.com in October 2021. “The main thing that I told him was, ‘Hey, give it a try and see if this is something that’s for you.'”
Alphonso said Samuels-Thomas got off to a good start.
“He did a great job,” Alphonso said. “The official supervision, I think he succeeded. He took what he was given there and I think he did a good job and kept his cool throughout the game. It was a lot of fun, that’s for sure.”
Through Alphonso, Samuels-Thomas in 2020 reached out to 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 to 2017 and is now the NHL’s director of officiating, scouting and development, to monitor and critique his officiating of local under-16 players.
Leggo was impressed.
“He’s a sponge and he took everything to heart,” he told NHL.com in October 2021. “Next times [on ice] he corrected himself. He made giant strides in the beginning, then now it’s the progressive thing, learning the nuances of the game, the gray areas.”
Samuels-Thomas began playing games in the USHL and North American Hockey League before moving to the AHL. In September, he attended NHL Officials Training Camp in Buffalo, where he met Sharrers, who was being honored by his former colleagues.
“I think it’s just an exciting time in NHL history,” Sharrers said Thursday. “Just to show how the game has changed from the number of black players and players from different ethnic backgrounds who are now in the League, I think it’s an exciting time and it’s nice to see our team now have this kind of representation.
NHL.com editor Tracey Myers contributed to this report