Meet the women striving to become NHL’s first female officials

Referee Katie Guay watches a Boston College line change during an NCAA college hockey game. (Winslow Townson/AP)

Ask just about any referee, and they’ll tell you the same thing: The best games are the ones in which the officials go unnoticed.

There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule.

For referees like Katie Guay and Kelly Cooke, and linesmen Kendall Hanley and Kirsten Welsh, a little time in the spotlight can go a long way.

The NHL is making a push to develop a more diverse officiating prospect pool, and — thanks to a series of firsts this season — these four women are leading the way.

The quartet made history in September, becoming the first women to work an NHL-affiliated event when they officiated at various NHL rookie tournaments around the U.S. Guay went to Anaheim, Cooke was sent to Nashville, and Hanley and Welsh were in Traverse City, Mich., and Buffalo, respectively.

“I never imagined when I got into officiating that I would be out in Orange County officiating an NHL rookie tournament. So that was a lot of fun,” said Guay, whose 14 years as a referee at various levels has seen her travel the globe to work various world championships. In 2018, she achieved her goal of working an Olympic women’s tournament when she was among those sent to PyeongChang. She’s currently on the men’s and women’s Div. I circuit, officiating ECAC games around her home base in the Boston area.

September’s milestone with the NHL opened up a whole other world of possibilities to Guay, her peers, and many others.

“To have four of us do the rookie tournaments is a huge step in having a female have the opportunity to do a regular-season [NHL] game,” said Guay. “Being part of this group that’s forging the path, I think, has been a lot of fun. I’m just enjoying every opportunity…. It’s been a blast, for sure.”

The chance for Guay and the others to call games at the rookie tournaments came as a result of their standout performances during last August’s NHL Exposure Combine – an annual three-day event in Buffalo established in 2014. The combine targets primarily former players, partly because officiating is an excellent way for them to stay in the game, and partly because of the rigorous physical demands for on-ice officials. In a game that’s all about speed these days, officials need to be able to keep up.

“It’s super important to be an athlete these days with how fast the game has evolved. The expectation is that you’re an athlete, and obviously the other aspects of officiating: knowledge of the game and feel for the game,” said linesman Kendall Hanley, who’s currently based in Minneapolis but got her first taste of officiating while in Texas. Hanley said she’s in the gym five to six days a week during the off-season and on the ice as much as possible year-round to continually work on her skating and endurance.

“When you’re playing, it’s short shifts, quick speed, explosive,” she said. “As an official, you’ve gotta have that explosivity, but at the same time you’ve also got to have stamina.”

Hanley also said she’s changed her nutritional habits over the course of her career, and has also worked hard on her mental game.

“It’s a lot, off-ice and behind the scenes, to be a high-level official,” she said.

Director of officiating Stephen Walkom and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have emphasized the need to expand the league’s officiating prospect pool and eventually break the gender barrier, and bringing in more women to the combine is a strong first step.

“We need great people and athletes from the game to get into officiating and our goal is to deepen the pool of aspiring young officials, both men and women,” Walkom said via email. “Whether it’s through our NHL Exposure Combine or the NHL Rookie tournaments we look to provide opportunities for officials to elevate their performance outside of their regular leagues.

“Katie Guay, Kelly Cooke, Kendall Hanley and Kirsten Welsh have all proven themselves on the ice and we hope they inspire other women to follow in their footsteps.”

Toronto native and rookie linesman Kirsten Welsh is a perfect example of the kind of new candidate the combine is hoping to bring in: recently retired college players, strong skaters, and people with a passion for the game.

For women like Kelly Cooke – who actually started officiating in recreational leagues as a 12-year-old and continued through her playing days in high school and collegiate career at Princeton – the combine is an opportunity to test skills and perhaps reach the next step in pursuing more officiating opportunities in the pros. Cooke played two seasons with the CWHL and one with the NWHL, and now works as a lawyer and also serves as the director of the player-safety committee for the NWHL. By reaching out to a number of former players in the U.S., Cooke played an important role in this year’s exposure combine class having a record 11 women attend.

Considering what came next, we shouldn’t be surprised if that number grows for this year’s event.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition in St. Louis in January was the first to host an all-women’s event. And for the elite women’s three-on-three game between the Canada and the USA, the league once again put in a call to Guay, Cooke, Hanley and Welsh – the first all-female crew to officiate an NHL event.

For Hanley, striding out onto the All-Star Game ice and looking up at 18,000 fans brought a strong reminder of those who blazed the trail for these kinds of opportunities to happen in the first place.

“All the women and men – supervisors and mentors that have helped you – but specifically the women that have come before you,” said Hanley. “They’re out there on that ice with you. We wouldn’t have these opportunities without them.”

Each of the four who officiated that three-on-three event has her own mentors – whether it was a referee who called her college games and encouraged her to put on the stripes, or someone they saw on the Olympic stage. Now each of them is in a unique position to be able to influence many others.

“The event in St. Louis, I think, opened so many eyes,” said Guay. “I’ve heard from so many people that saw the game and saw the officials. For people to see the amount of opportunities that are out there, I think will encourage more former players to consider it…. Certainly the hope is people will reach out and ask for advice and get out there and try it.

“You don’t know unless you try, and the hope is that more people give it a shot.”

The question, naturally, turns to what’s next.

Look around the major North American leagues, and you’ll see women beginning to break into the big leagues in officiating roles.

The NBA has had six female full-time officials, starting with the historic hiring of Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner in 1997. (Kantner’s tenure lasted four seasons and Palmer’s career spanned almost two decades before she retired in 2016.) There are currently four women in the NBA’s full-time referee rotation today: Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling (hired full-time in 2014-15), Natalie Sago (2018-19) Ashley Moyer-Gleich (2018-19), and Jenna Schroeder, who was just promoted to full-time this past October.

Umpire Pam Postema was the first woman to call a Major League Baseball spring training game back in 2000, and while there are a few other women coming down the prospect pipeline, the league has yet to bring in a female umpire for a regular-season game.

In 2015, eight years after first making history as the first woman to work a major college football game, Sarah Thomas became the first female full-time referee in the NFL. She broke yet another barrier in 2019 when she became the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game.

“I think the question is, you know, when will it happen in the NHL?” said Guay. “Obviously, I can’t answer that question, but certainly I’ve been able to see first-hand that the NHL has been taking a lot of steps to open up doors and provide opportunities for women.

“Getting to the NHL is not an easy task – for players and officials. There are so many great players out there and so many great officials, and making it to the top is certainly difficult,” Guay continued. “So I think it’s just a matter of the first female having the experience and proving the ability to compete at that level.”

Said Cooke, “It’s going to happen at some point, once they find the right person to do the job.

“No matter who it is that’s going to break that barrier, I think we’re all going to be there watching and supporting that person. I think it’s coming sooner rather than later,” she said. “Only time will tell.”

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