Ten women are on the roster to officiate games in the American Hockey League this season, the league told ESPN -- a historic move that paves the way for a woman to officiate in the National Hockey League one day.
Katie Guay will get the first assignment, refereeing an Oct. 16 game between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Lehigh Valley Phantoms. When Guay steps on the ice, she will become the first woman to officiate in the AHL, the top development league for the NHL. Kelly Cooke, Samantha Hiller, Jacqueline Zee Howard, Elizabeth Mantha, Amanda Tassoni and Laura White will also appear as AHL referees this season while Alexandra Clarke, Kendall Hanley and Kirsten Welsh are set to debut as linespersons.
Over the past several years, NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom has made a concerted effort to expand his recruiting efforts so that the league can maintain a talented pool of officials. For Walkom, that has meant reaching out to current and ex players, both men and women.
"We think that it's important for the game of hockey to attract like-minded people that are great athletes to pursue officiating," Walkom told ESPN. "It's great that these women will really be the trailblazers to step into professional men's hockey. We think that there's many women out there playing hockey that hopefully, when they stop playing, will consider giving back. Because the majority of great officials in the future are sitting on the bench right now. I hope this inspires people to want to try it and recognize there's a lot of opportunity out there."
The 10 officials have experience across all levels, including at the Olympics and World Championships, in men's and women's college hockey -- and for some, in NHL prospect tournaments. All of the women have participated in the NHL Officiating Association Mentorship program and all but Clarke participated in the NHL's Exposure Combine in Buffalo in August.
The NFL and NBA both have women's officials in their rotation. The NHL is hoping to follow suit.
"It's time," AHL president Scott Howson told ESPN. "We're a development league, so it's time to give these women a chance and let them advance their careers. I think it's great for our fans to see it. The example that these women are setting for young women all over the world is that sports is wide open for everybody, really at all positions."
The NHL and NHL Officiating mentorship program for elite women's officials began in December 2020. The NHL worked with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, and together identified 48 women to participate across North America. The weekly Zoom sessions were led by current and retired NHL officials. The group broke down video and covered topics such as communication with coaches and players, pregame prep and dealing with adversity. Those sessions continued informally through the 2020-21 season.
Guay was one of four women to work an NHL prospect tournament in 2019, which marked the first NHL-affiliated event that women have ever officiated. Guay said that people do notice that she is a woman when she steps onto the ice, mostly because she keeps her ponytail visible from under her helmet.
"The hope is our skill won't differentiate us from the guys out there," Guay told ESPN in 2019. "At the end of the day, you want to go unnoticed, and hopefully the ponytail doesn't change people's perception of our performance."
Cooke was also among the first women to officiate an NHL prospect tournament. She said she hopes by being on the ice, she will inspire other women to choose officiating as a path, and as a way to give back to hockey.
"It's just been an issue of exposure," Cooke told ESPN. "Women didn't really think of officiating as an option. I didn't [when I was playing]. If you don't see women out there, you wouldn't really think about it."
The NHL had a hiring freeze on officials last year because of the condensed season. Walkom said that allowed for them to fulfill two years of hirings and promotions this year. The 10 women calling games in the AHL this season will be "scouted a lot, like any official in the American Hockey League." There is no typical development timeline for an AHL official to be promoted to the NHL; officials can get called up after one or two seasons, five or six seasons, or never at all. The NHL chooses its officials based on ability.
"All of these women have earned the opportunity to be where they are today," Walkom said. "And like any official looking to take the next step, the requirement is the same: They need to conquer the American Hockey League first, and do it one game at a time."