Kainberger chasing dreams
by Andrew Podnieks|27 AUG 2022
Julia Krainberger during a game in Frederikshavn at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
It was exactly 25 years ago, at the 1997 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, that the IIHF went to all-female officials, and although the program has been a huge success, there is a constant need to recruit more officials and keep replenishing the pool of top talent. One of the most important ways to do this is by encouraging players who are thinking about retiring to “become a zebra.”

Julia Kainberger is a perfect example of such a person. She is here in Denmark as a referee, and before that she worked the lines for several years. But even before that she played for Austria’s women’s national team. 

“The first time I played for Austria was at the under-18, Division IA,” Kainberger recalled during an off day. “I played for four years, but we never made it out of Division I. And then I played for the senior team in IA as well. I was young when I came to the national team. I was 15. But if you wanted to grow hockey in Austria, we knew the goal had to be to get to the A-Pool championship. We needed more awareness, more sponsors. It was tough, but we tried to play a role in that.”

Even in senior play Kainberger’s teams weren’t quite able to move to the top level, and this helped make her transition from player to official a bit easier. 

“I grew up in Zell am See,” she began, looking back to where and how it all began, “which is in the mountains about an hour away from Salzburg. It’s a small town, and there were a few boys in our neighbourhood. One of them, his dad was a coach, so we played street hockey. One day I went to the skating school with the other boys, and that’s how I got started. At that time, I didn’t even know there was women’s hockey or a women’s national team. I basically went through all the junior programs with men’s teams until I was 19, and then I switched to Salzburg, which had a female team. I played there for a couple of years, and then I switched to lining.”

Her self-scouting report as a player is simple and honest: “I didn’t have the most skill or the best hands, but I could skate very well, so I was a pretty aggressive player.”

Kainberger spent her teens playing for the U18 team, but successful or not she knew education as a means to a job in the working world was important.

“When I started playing in Salzburg with the female team, I also started university to become a teacher, and I figured it would be nice to get a job for one or two days. Someone suggested becoming a hockey official. I mean, it’s great because you do what you love and still get a few bucks to buy food, so it was a perfect choice for me. Over time, I got more and more serious, and there came a point that I had to decide if I wanted to go big and become an official or continue to play hockey.”

That decision was made easier by her love of officiating, and a subtle push from the IIHF. “In my first year in Salzburg, I played and lined, but they were honest with me. They said if I want to go higher and do IIHF tournaments, I had to quit playing. You can’t do both. That’s just how it is. Having their support was a huge part of me making my decision.”

Like everyone, Kainberger started small and got bigger and bigger, but in her case that trajectory was sped up because she kept proving more and more able the tougher the assignments. “My first IIHF event was an under-18 qualifier in Austria. But the IIHF was really helpful. They pushed me through the system and gave me a lot of tournaments right from the beginning, so a lot happened quickly. The Olympic season was my fourth year being an official.” 

Her first top level event was the 2018 U18 Women’s Worlds and she fared so well during her first games that she was given the gold medal game. A year later, she moved to the senior Women’s Worlds, and in 2021 she was given that tournament’s gold game as well. Then, last February, she got the call to Beijing.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle of everyone’s career, at least on the female side because we can’t go to the NHL or any league like that. It’s the big dream. It was different, for sure, because of the covid protocols, but when I look back it’s still the Olympics, the greatest tournament you can get. It was huge to get there.”

But Kainberger is clearly ambitious, and she hasn’t rested on her laurels. This past summer she decided to go all in and switch over to refereeing. From the outside, it may have seemed like a radical move, but not to her. “I lined pretty much from the beginning, but we had a shortage of refs in the region where I live, so I did that a lot because I lived close to where most of the games are played. So then I started to ref junior games. I liked it, but at the time I didn’t think the timing was right to flip, so I wanted to wait until after the Olympics.”

And here she is again, on the biggest IIHF stage, but now with whistle in hand in Denmark. Her switch was also calculated because she is now starting a new Olympic cycle, and she has every intention to aim for Milan 2026 if she gets the call. 

“I really want to keep pushing for the next Olympic cycle as a ref. If I keep working the games I get, and keep getting better, there’s a chance to achieve that. That’s my goal.”

If she achieves that, she will be part of a select group of women to have officiated the Olympics as both a ref and linesperson. It has been done only three times previous, all in 1998, after the IIHF moved to all female officials and necessitated combining assignments. Three women that year did double duty: German Manuela Groger and two Canadians, Laurie Taylor-Bolton and Marina Zenk.

In the meantime, Kainberger has been following what has been going on in North America, where this past season several top female officials have been given the chance to work men’s games at various to levels under the NHL, from the AHL to Canadian junior to NCAA. And she is happy if she becomes part of that conversation at some point.

“That’s the hope of every female official now,” she admitted. “I have a lot of friends in the U.S. and Canada who got to work men’s games last year, which is great. I think a lot of European refs hoped, too, that after the Olympics they would get a chance at the top leagues in Europe. That hasn’t happened yet, but I hope we will get there. I hope I can achieve it as a ref now rather than on the line. Why not? The opportunities are there. Why not ref a game in a different country or men’s league?”

For now, Kainberger keeps on working, learning, evolving. She’s back in Zell am See teaching biology and geography to kids aged 10 to 18, dreaming of a men’s league or the next Olympics, but focused for now on the task at hand – the 2022 Women’s Worlds.