Women officials thrilled by NHL experience
Working prospect tournaments turns out to be 'dream come true'by Shawn P. Roarke @SRoarke_NHL / NHL.com Senior Director of Editorial
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Four women officials had the career opportunity of a lifetime at NHL prospect tournaments this week, and each loved every second of it.
"It's more than I could have ever imagined," said Kirsten Welsh, a first-year official. "Incredible and a dream come true."
Welsh and fellow linesman Kendall Hanley, along with referees Katie Guay and Kelly Cooke, four of the 96 officials who participated the 2019 NHL Exposure Combine, were selected to officiate rookie tournaments in Irvine, California; Buffalo; Nashville and Traverse City, Michigan.
And though the experiences were incredible, the opportunities came with challenges, some expected, some not.
Cooke worked the 2019 NHL Prospects Showcase in Nashville and despite having officiated for the past 10 years, she said she was not quite prepared for what greeted her in her first game, which featured the Tampa Bay Lightning.
One of the first players to step onto the ice for warmups was defenseman Oleg Sosunov, who is 6-foot-9 and 236 pounds and played at the American Hockey League level last season.
"Oh my God, I don't know if I can do this," Cooke admitted to thinking in the moment, recalling the incident with a laugh.
But she did do it, handling the increased speed and physicality of her first professional men's game capably.
It was the same for Welsh, who worked the 2019 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, a tournament that featured the debut of Jack Hughes, who the New Jersey Devils selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
In her first game, Welsh said she had issues dropping the puck crisply for face-offs, and added she was worried about the centers encroaching when she did so.
The more experienced officials on her crew worked with her between periods and helped iron out her technique.
Each official raved about the camaraderie and teaching they have received throughout the week, both in-game and afterward.
During their time at the tournaments, which ended Tuesday, each official had an in-depth support system in place, including an on-site supervisor as well as the officials they worked with, many culled from the ranks of the ECHL and American Hockey League.
"Obviously, I take every game and I break it down and I take what I can from it, things I did great and what I have to improve upon," Hanley said. "It's been like any other tournament and I appreciate that because there are things I can take away from this tournament and implement right away to my games back at home when I get going in the regular season."
For each, the journey to this place in time has been different, but each is aware of the magnitude of the opportunity placed before her.
"I'm really grateful and excited to be a part of it and be one of the four women selected to be at these NHL rookie tournaments," said Hanley, who has officiated NCAA and USA Hockey games and is working the 2019 NHL Prospect Challenge here. "It's going to be an experience that I will never forget and always keep close to my heart."
The NHL undertook this experiment, in part, because the talent pool of women officials has grown exponentially in the past few years, especially at the Exposure Combine held annually in Buffalo. That combine allows established referees and those with the requisite skills and interest the opportunity to learn the tools of the trade and gain valuable hands-on experience.
"We've always been open to having good athletes come to our combine," NHL vice president and director of officiating Steve Walkom said. "We were fortunate enough this year to have a number of women that fit that criteria, so we're just giving them the same chance and opportunities that we are giving the men."
Walkom knew there would be growing pains for the women involved in this process.
So, too, did the women; they also recognized the pros outweighed the cons and the trying moments relayed by Welsh and Cooke.
"It's a learning curve for each of us," said Guay, a veteran referee who officiated at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and worked the 2019 Anaheim Rookie Faceoff.
Welsh, the least experienced, was playing NCAA Division I hockey for Robert Morris University last season. Yet she is already envisioning taking her new hockey vocation as far as possible.
"This is literally my career path; this is my dream," she said after her first game in Buffalo. "I didn't even know this existed or was even a possibility a year ago. If you asked me if I would be doing this I would have been like, 'You're crazy.' And now I'm here."
Guay has been officiating for 14 years and has had several career highlights aside from her Olympic participation. She has officiated multiple IIHF World Championships, was part of the first all-women officiating crew at the NCAA Division 1 Women's Frozen Four and the first woman to officiate in the men's Beanpot Tournament.
She is an inspiration and a mentor to the other women officials involved in this pilot program.
"Katie Guay is one of the best skaters and referees I've ever seen," Welsh said. "She's incredible. She's, like, so confident, and knows everything to the T. She's very knowledgeable, very firm with her calls, and she's someone I look up to."
Guay said she's excited about the experiences of the four this week, but also about the bigger picture. She looks around and sees more women entering the officiating ranks and making names for themselves. Four years ago, there was one woman official at the Exposure Combine four years ago. This time, there were 11.
Opportunities for advancement are coming more frequently, Guay said.
"The path is being created for women to be officials at the highest levels and the door is more wide-open than it has ever been," she said.
Could a woman officiate one day in the NHL? The strides they have taken this week bring that goal closer than ever before.
"You know what?" Hanley said. "Whenever it does happen, and that woman does hit the ice for that NHL regular-season game, I'm going to be either the first one to fly out there and cheer them on or if I can't fly out there, I will be watching on TV and sending them big congrats."
NHL.com staff writer Mike G. Morreale contributed to this report