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NHL helping women pursue officiating

Participants at Exposure Combine hope to join League, say 'acceptance is growing'

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Samantha Kline never played hockey. She was a figure skater, one competitive enough to be home-schooled through high school, spending hours a day at her local rink in Florida. A junior team shared the ice, so she kept time for them, got to know the guys in the small hockey community. 

"They were always telling me, 'You know the rules, you know how to skate, you're always out here, why don't you ref?'" she said. "I didn't really take it seriously."

But then her skating career ended, and she became part of the ice crew for the Florida Panthers. She got to know some of the NHL officials, whose locker room was right next to that of the ice crew. One day, as she recalled, her then-boyfriend's roommate had the rulebook sitting on the kitchen counter.

She decided she would try officiating. 

"I did it as an 'I'll show everyone' and then it just kind of took off," she said.

That's how she found herself at HarborCenter here in mid-August, a second-time participant in the NHL Exposure Combine, one of four women invited to a weekend event designed to introduce former players to officiating and to identify potential future talent for the NHL and other leagues. 

"Women's hockey and women's officiating are just as important as the male game," said Al Kimmel, NHL director of scouting and development for officiating. "We wanted to reach out to them. I think the women maybe thought this wasn't their place to be, but hopefully in the future we'll have more numbers."

Four, though less than ideal, is more than last year, when Kline was the only one in attendance.

"A lot of people were like, [it's] competition," the 23-year-old Kline said. "No, I'm so happy about it. … I think the acceptance is growing. I always try to talk to the young girls when I'm out there doing women's games, 16, 17 [years old]. I'm like, 'You ever thought about reffing?' I always try to say it."

Though a position in the NHL as an official is beyond their grasp, at least at the moment, the NHL welcomed the women to take part in the combine as part of its mission to improve officiating at all levels, from midget to professional, Western Hockey League to ECHL, and in men's hockey and women's hockey. 

This year the NHL actually had seven women lined up to attend. Three dropped out not long before the early August event, when Hockey Canada came calling, but four -- Kline, Vanessa Ley, Elizabeth Mantha and Joelle Ouellette -- arrived in Buffalo ready to soak in the lessons the NHL staff was there to provide. 

Mantha had officiated for eight years but did not know about the combine until she was contacted by the NHL after she was spotted at a hockey clinic last year in Moncton, New Brunswick. Egged on by her family, including her brother, Anthony, a Detroit Red Wings forward, Mantha accepted the invitation.

"I've seen my brother go to the (NHL Scouting) Combine as a player when he was younger, but I didn't know it existed," she said. "I'm pretty happy to be here.

"I'm coming here to have some fun and learn the most out of the people that are here. I don't know if someday we're going to ref in the NHL, but at least we see what it looks like and grab the experience we can get out of here."

The hope is that they will officiate in the NHL. There have been woman officials in the NBA for 21 years, after Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner became the first women to officiate in a major U.S. professional league, though only one other woman has been hired since. The NFL hired Sarah Thomas as its only full-time woman official in 2015.

Video: Amalie Benjamin talks Exposure Combine, David Krejci

As NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom said of women working NHL games someday, "It's definitely a possibility."

That's what Mantha would like to see, part of why she was here for the combine. 

"Why not someday?" she said in her French-inflected accent. "I'd love to. If it's not me, maybe in 10 years or so. I would love it. I already officiate at a men's level also, but midget level, and I'm the only woman back in Quebec officiating at that level in men's [hockey]. I would love to."

And her brother would love to have her. 

The two spent the summer training at home in Montreal as they've done for nine years. They pushed each other, with Anthony preparing to rejoin the Red Wings for the season and Elizabeth preparing for the combine and the officiating season ahead. 

Anthony has watched as Elizabeth's officiating path has become something more than she anticipated, going from a way to give back to the game and community to a vocation when she started being assigned bigger and bigger games. There came a lightbulb moment. 

"She realized she could be one of the best referees around and have actually a chance to maybe go to the Olympics one day," Anthony said.

As she prepared for the combine, they talked about the possibility of having a woman official in the NHL, about having Elizabeth join him there. For now, the Olympics is the pinnacle for women in officiating, with their next shot in 2022 in Beijing. 

But perhaps there could be another dream for Kline and Elizabeth Mantha and the rest. 

"It would be unreal to see a woman in the NHL," Anthony Mantha said. "If it would be my sister, it would be unbelievable even more. Obviously, there are a lot of steps she needs to go through before getting there. … If everything goes perfectly and everything is set up for her to be the next or the first [woman] ref in the NHL it would be really, really, really a success."

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