When Kirsten Welsh graduated from Robert Morris University in 2019, after her four-year Division I hockey career, she had no real way to continue in the sport and remain in Pittsburgh. Playing overseas didn’t work. The National Women’s Hockey League didn’t work.
And then an assistant coach at Robert Morris got a call from Stephen Walkom, NHL director of officiating, asking if any players might be interested in attending the 2019 Exposure Combine, a yearly event designed to introduce former players to officiating and identify potential officials for the NHL and other leagues.
Welsh fit the bill.
Two years — and two trips to the Exposure Combine later — Welsh is part of a group of 10 women breaking barriers, joining the AHL roster of officials for the 2021-22 season. Katie Guay will be the first woman to ever officiate an AHL game, when Lehigh Valley visits Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 16.
Referees Kelly Cooke, Jacqueline Zee Howard, Samantha Hiller, Laura White, Elizabeth Mantha — the sister of Washington Capitals forward Anthony Mantha — and Amanda Tassoni will all make their AHL debuts in October. Linespersons Alexandra Clarke, who will be working in the Western Hockey League, Kendall Hanley and Welsh will make their AHL debuts later.
It’s a big moment for women in the sport.
“I think they’ve just earned the opportunity to work at the next level, to work at the professional level,” Walkom said. “I think that Katie is a great example of that Division I athlete that got into officiating, became great at it, is great at it.”
Guay, a referee, and Welsh, a linesperson, are at the opposite ends of the officiating spectrum. Guay, who played at Brown, entered the officiating world in 2006 and has been working games for 15 years. She officiated at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, one of eight IIHF tournaments she’s worked. She has refereed in both men’s and women’s Division I hockey, was part of the first-ever all-female officiating crew at the 2019 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four and was the first woman to officiate the men’s Beanpot Championship, in 2019.
Welsh, meanwhile, is just starting out. She became the first woman to officiate an Ontario Hockey League game Sept. 30.
“I just want to make the AHL proud,” she said, noting how hard she and other women have worked to earn the promotion. “I want to deserve this spot. I don’t want to just be put in here because I’m a girl. I want to deserve this spot.”
Both Guay and Welsh have seen their careers and their prospects bolstered by attendance at the Exposure Combine in 2019 and 2021 — the 2020 version was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and by participating in the 2020 Mentorship Program, an NHL initiative to have NHL officials work with elite female officials to spur conversation on the profession, including tips, tricks and advice.
It’s no surprise to those who have followed her career that Guay is among the group rising to this level. Two years ago, when she became the first woman to officiate in the Beanpot, longtime NHL referee Paul Stewart, who is the director of officiating for ECAC hockey, said, “If I had to pick from all the women that I’ve seen, at every level, that could break the glass ceiling in the NHL, she could,” praising her skating in particular.
“My goal had always been the Olympics and so, when I had that opportunity in 2018, that’s what I had been focused on for so long and that was a long-term dream and a long run to get there,” Guay said. “I thought I made it to the top. It was around that time frame that the opportunity to attend the Exposure Combine came up, and so it was great to be able to then set my sights on a new goal and aim bigger.”
It has allowed, as she said, for the women who have been working for years to see that recognized, to have it noticed. It has also allowed others, who, like Welsh, may never have known this was an option to remain in the game, and even reach the professional ranks.
“Any time people are given a chance and new paths are formed, it opens eyes for others to dream bigger,” Guay said.
At this point, that’s the AHL. But the NHL remains a realistic goal for the upcoming generation of women.
“I’ve said before we’re going to see a day when we see women working professional hockey, and that day is coming real quick,” Walkom said. “One day, we will see women in the NHL. It’s just a matter of time.”
The jump to the AHL is, as Walkom said, “a wicked test for any official,” with the increased pace and difficulty of the professional ranks. But it’s one that he believes these women are ready for. It’s a chance they know they’ve earned, and they hope that not only can they continue to progress in their own careers, but that other women will see this as a legitimate path forward in hockey.
“All these women are working in the second-best league in the world,” Walkom said. “They too can do it. There’s a place for great officials in hockey, and they just need to get out and try it and stay with it to see if they love it.”
It has become a viable career choice, and one they are so happy to have.
“You’re serving the game,” Welsh said. “That’s all I really could ever ask for in alternative career in hockey is being able to still be inside the class, skate with the players. Doing what I love.”