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NHL moving forward with female officiating

China Daily | Updated: 2019-09-16 09:34
Kirsten Welsh watches at center ice as Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins players take the ice to prepare to play in the Sabres prospects hockey tournament, in New York, US, on Sept 6, 2019. [Photo/IC]

BUFFALO, NY - Once the butterflies and adrenalin rush of officiating her first NHL prospects game subsided, Kirsten Welsh woke up on Saturday eager to get back on the ice again.

Whatever miscues Welsh made and hesitancy showed during her debut at the Buffalo Sabres prospects tournament a day earlier were overshadowed by how much she enjoyed the experience. There was also the realization she might have a future as an NHL linesmanor - or is it lineswoman?

"I just think this is what I love. This is what I've always been about," Welsh said. "Having the opportunity to pursue this is just unbelievable. I can't tell you how thankful I am."

The 22-year-old from Toronto was, as she put it "thrown into the fire" by working a game between Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins prospects. Aside from calling offside and icing and handling faceoffs, the 5-foot-10 Welsh was unafraid to get in the middle of several post-whistle scrums.

"I think the guys were kind of thrown off that a girl was rushing in there to break them up," said Welsh, who completed a four-year college career playing defense at Pittsburgh's Robert Morris University last season. "I got smushed in the boards yesterday, too. It's fun. I just think it's so great to be out there with them and being able to be on the ice with all these amazing athletes."

Welsh has the potential to become a trailblazer in a role that's been exclusively reserved for men at NHL level until last Friday. That's when the league announced Welsh was one of four women selected for the first time to officiate the league's various prospect tournaments held around the nation.

Welsh is joined by Katie Guay and Kelly Cooke, who were selected as referees to work tournaments in Anaheim, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. Kendall Hanley was assigned to work as a linesman at the Detroit Red Wings tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.

The four were chosen after being among 89 participants - 11 of them women - at the NHL's annual officials scouting combine in Buffalo last month. And they become the first women assigned to work on the ice in a competitive NHL setting.

All four are considered candidates to eventually break the NHL's officiating gender barrier, which has become a point of emphasis stressed by commissioner Gary Bettman and the league's director of officiating, Stephen Walkom.

The NBA has had female officials since Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired in 1997. Sarah Thomas was the NFL's first female official in 2015. Pam Postema, in 2000, was the first female to umpire a Major League Baseball spring training game, and there are at least two women currently working at the Triple-A level.

Al Kimmel, the NHL's director of scouting and development for officiating, said last month that the growth of women's hockey has led to a surge of candidates.

"In my six years here, the growth and improvement of the on-ice and off-ice abilities match some of the men and surpass some of the men," Kimmel said. "We've got some high-caliber women officials here that have world-class experience that are going to show some of the boys some things out there."

Guay is the most experienced of the four. Her 14-year officiating career includes working women's games at last year's Winter Olympics, college hockey men's games and being part of the first all-female officiating crew to work the women's Frozen Four championship last spring.

Her lifelong objective was limited to working the Olympics, before finally realizing the possibility of working in the NHL.

"I think it's huge," she said last month, of the chance of being selected to work an NHL prospects game. "I think any time people are given a chance and new paths are formed, it opens eyes for others to kind of dream bigger."

Welsh's debut wasn't spotless. She said she needs to be more assertive in her calls and more in control of players during faceoffs.

"It's really being firm, like kicking them out of the faceoff if that's the case, don't let them get away with stuff because I'm a girl," she said.

Welsh was grateful for the positive support she received from her fellow on-ice officials and league supervisors, who immediately went over her tape to provide tips on what she needs to improve. She also leaned on the support of former Robert Morris player Brandon Blandina, who made his NHL officiating debut last season.

Welsh was particularly encouraged by undrafted Penguins prospect Chase Berger congratulating her by shaking her hand following the game.

"I literally had to say, 'Wow. Thank you. You have no idea how much that means to me,'" she recalled.

Bruins prospect forward Cooper Zech said he wasn't aware of a female linesman working the game until he noticed Welsh's long hair.

"It didn't change anything. It's a linesman. It doesn't matter if it's a boy, girl, they blow the whistle, the plays dead. Nothing changes," Zech said. "She's got the same jurisdiction of any linesman in the National Hockey League or anywhere. Hockey's hockey."

Associated Press

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