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Chasing Her Dreams

Kendall Hanley became one of the first four female referees in NHL preseason tournament history when she officiated the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City

by Josh Berenter /

DETROIT -- When the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament began last week in Traverse City, more than 200 NHL hopefuls took the ice, looking to impress scouts and make their hockey dreams come true.

But one hopeful stood out in the crowd, as Kendall Hanley became the first female official to referee a game in NHL preseason tournament history.

Hanley grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina as a multi-sport athlete, but became addicted to hockey as a teenager and dreamt of creating a career on the ice.

Hanley began playing college hockey at Division III Elmira College in New York, but as her passion for animal biology grew, she transferred to nearby SUNY Oswego to pursue a Zoology degree. She continued playing varsity hockey at SUNY Oswego and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2009.

But after college, Hanley wasn't ready to hang up her skates, so she started exploring ways she could remain involved in the game she loved.

She began officiating local games and worked her way up the ranks, eventually earning a spot on the international level, officiating for the International Ice Hockey Federation, as well as women's games in NCAA Division I & III and the National Women's Hockey League.

This past March, Hanley received a breakthrough opportunity when she was invited to the 2019 NHL Exposure Combine, which is a three-day scouting exhibition in Buffalo for prospective officials.

Hanley and 10 other women were among the 96 officials at the Exposure Combine, and the 35-year-old said the experience was priceless.

"It was phenomenal," she said. "It's a really challenging three days. They put you through on-ice and off-ice testing. It's go, go, go from when you get there until you leave.

"It's unbelievable. We can ask questions in the middle of the game, which is invaluable. To have a current NHL official right there shadowing me was unreal. It was an experience I'll never forget, and I was so grateful for that opportunity."

Hanley performed so well at the Exposure Combine that she was one of four women selected to officiate in the four NHL rookie preseason tournaments throughout the country.

Katie Guay, Kelly Cooke and Kirsten Welsh also joined Hanley in the NHL officating record books, as Guay was a referee the Anaheim Rookie Faceoff Tournament, Cooke officiated the Nashville Prospects Showcase and Welsh took the ice in the Buffalo Sabres Prospect Challenge.

Similar to the way she approaches officiating, Hanley did her research on the NHL Prospect Tournament. She said she was honored to have the opportunity to be a pioneer as the first-ever female official at the most prestigious preseason tournament in the NHL.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity. Doors are opening in for women in the NHL," said Hanley, who officiated four games in Traverse City, including the Red Wings vs. St. Louis Blues matchup this past Saturday. "The NHL is doing everything they can to have the best officials at their events, and if those officials are women, then they're going to bring them in.

"I think in time, they'll find the right person to continue down this path, and this is an amazing first step. I'm very fortunate to be part of the first four. Other women and girls can get excited about officiating and know they'll be supported and know there are opportunities to advance."

The inclusion of women in hockey is part of the NHL's growing Hockey is for Everyone initiative. The initiative uses the game of hockey and the NHL's global influence to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.

"The opportunity to officiate at an NHL Rookie tournament is an important step in the development of the next generation of elite officials," NHL senior vice president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom said to before the Prospect Tournament. "We look forward to watching all four women elevate their performance in this new competitive environment."

Hanley said she appreciates the NHL's efforts to provide inclusion for anyone who loves the game of hockey.

"I think it's phenomenal. I don't think hockey should have any barriers," she said. "The more people we can get involved in this amazing game, the better. From all aspects, there shouldn't be any barriers to anybody. I think it's phenomenal that the NHL is embracing that and helping folks have that opportunity."

While Hanley knows there will be bumps throughout the journey as women are creating more of an impact in the hockey world, she said she puts an incredible amount of effort and preparation into her craft in order to command everyone's respect and earn equal opportunities.

"Personally, I've been able to fly under the radar," Hanley said about facing discrimination on the ice. "If you go out and you're prepared to do your job … I spend a lot of time away from the rink preparing physically and with rule knowledge. I do a lot of video review of myself and others.

"So, there's a lot of preparation that goes into it behind the scenes before I even get to the rink. I really haven't had an issue with respect. I just want to be treated like every other official, and thus far, I have."

Now that the NHL Prospect Tournament has ended, with the Red Wings taking home the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup as tourney champions, Hanley has returned to her home in Minneapolis, where she balances officiating five nights a week with a career as a sales associate at a pet shop, along with her own dog-walking business that she created.

And while her opportunity to be the first female official in NHL preseason tournament history has come and gone, Hanley said she looks forward to breaking down more barriers and advancing her career on the ice.

"For the women's side, I think one of our main goals is to one day hit the ice for the Olympics," she said. "There's a lot that's got to go into that, but we've got to dream big.

"Now that I've had the opportunity to do this event, I'm going to keep plugging away. I'm going to continue to work hard in all areas. Any opportunity that comes my way, I'm going to do my best to make myself the most successful at it and see where the journey takes me. Any day you can step on the ice is a good day, it doesn't matter what level. I'm so grateful to be able to do what I do."

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