Two Black on-ice officials worked a game together for the first time in NHL history Thursday.
Referee Jordan Samuels-Thomas and linesman Shandor Alphonso officiated the Chicago Blackhawks’ 5-4 shootout win against the San Jose Sharks at United Center in Chicago. The game was Samuels-Thomas’ NHL debut and the first time a Black on-ice official wore the orange-and-black referee arm bands since Jay Sharrers worked the New York Islanders-Carolina Hurricanes game at Carolina on April 2, 2004.
Sharrers, who became the first Black on-ice official in the NHL on Oct. 6, 1990, when the Quebec Nordiques played at the Boston Bruins, was also at United Center on Thursday, working as a 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 years old and it’s been a lifetime of work and I had all my family here in the stands and friends and everyone who’s been with me along the way. So, special to share the moment with them.”
Samuels-Thomas wore No. 42, which was worn by Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“When I played I was No. 42 for a reason, and with the opportunity to wear this number [it] was easy,” Samuels-Thomas said. “… Being able to wear Jackie’s number is always special, so I got 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 has officiated six NHL preseason games and has spent most of this season and last season working in the American Hockey League.
The 31-year-old native of West Hartford, Connecticut, dreamed of playing in the NHL. A forward, Samuels-Thomas 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.
He was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the seventh round (No. 203) of the 2009 NHL Draft but never played an NHL game.
Samuels-Thomas instead found steady work in the minor leagues. He has 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 he still wanted to make the NHL. He methodically researched transitioning into officiating and reached out to referee Corey Syvret and linesmen Travis Gawryletz and Alphonso, who each successfully made the switch from player to NHL official, for their advice from him.
“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 told NHL.com in October 2021. “The main thing I said to him was , ‘Hey, give it a try and see if it’s something that’s for you.'”
Alphonso said Samuels-Thomas had a strong debut.
“I did a great job,” Alphonso said. “Official supervision, I think he nailed it. He took what was given to him out there and I thought he did a good job and kept his composure out there the whole game. It was a lot of fun, for sure.”
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 and development, to watch and criticize his officiating of local under-16 players.
Leggo was impressed.
“He’s a sponge and took everything to heart,” he told NHL.com in October 2021. “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.”
Samuels-Thomas began working games in the USHL and the North American Hockey League before progressing to the AHL. In September he attended the 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 moment in NHL history,” Sharrers said Thursday. “Just showing how the game has changed from the amount of Black players and players of different ethnic backgrounds who are now in the League, I think it’s an exciting moment and it’s nice to see our team now have that kind of representation.”
NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers contributed to this report