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By BOB YORK
Their profession requires a helmet. Their quest, however, calls for a hardhat.
The choice of appropriate headgear is becoming somewhat of an enigma for women hockey referees who aspire to officiate on the National Hockey League level. Unlike the rest of its band of brothers: the National Football League, the National Basketball League and Major League Baseball, the NHL has yet to allow a woman to ultimately shatter the glass ceilings that sit atop its arenas by accepting them into its fraternity of on-ice officials.
This past fall, however, the NHL opened that door just a smidgen and, for the first time ever, allowed four women to swap helmets for hardhats and take a test run at bringing down that ceiling after qualifying to officiate in the league’s Preseason Prospect Tournament in September.
These puck pioneers were among the 30 selected from an original group of 96 officials – including 11 women – after participating in and passing various on- and off-ice testing during a four-day exposure combine held in Buffalo during the last week of August. Of those “Final Four” women, three have direct ties to New England Prep School Athletic Council schools.
Those three are referees Katie Guay, who competed at Deerfield Academy and later coached at Noble & Greenough School, and Kelly Cooke, who played at Noble & Greenough. Linesman Kendall Hanley, meanwhile, played her prep hockey at Williston-Northampton School, while the fourth member of the group, Canadian Kirsten Welsh, who is also a linesman, spent her high-school hockey days in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League.
“If it turns out to be someone from our group who ends up shattering that glass ceiling once and for all, I think Katie will be the one to do it,” said Cooke of her former assistant coach at Nobles, “and I say that because she’s already had a great deal of experience officiating men’s hockey games.
“We’ve all been officiating women’s Division I collegiate hockey games for quite some time now,” added Cooke, “but Katie’s been mixing a good amount of men’s Division I and Division III college games into her schedule as well for a number of years, so she’s quite cognizant of the aspects that most differentiate the men’s and women’s games … speed and physicality.”
“If the NHL ever decides to give a woman the opportunity to officiate its games, I think Katie is the right person to do it,” was the echoing sentiment of Paul Stewart, who stepped down this past spring following a 12-year run as the ECAC’s director of men’s and women’s officiating. “In fact, if I had anything to say about it, I’d pencil her in for some of the men’s Division I playoff games this season. She’s an outstanding official and she’s good for the game of men’s college hockey.“
“Looking back, I felt as though I was treated the same as my peers were and as an official, that’s all you can ask for,” said Guay of her NHL preseason tourney experience that took her to the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., where she officiated a round-robin tourney featuring rookies from the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Las Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche.
“Overall, I feel good about my performance … I received a good amount of positive feedback from league officials and that was very encouraging,” added Guay, who is director of philanthropy for the USA Hockey Foundation. “As anticipated, I found the biggest difference between that level of hockey and the levels I’ve previously officiated at were the speed and physicality, but I felt as though I adapted to it.”
Following her freshman season at Westfield (Mass.) High School where she was the only girl on the boys varsity hockey team, Guay transferred to Deerfield. Although she spent just three years with the Big Green, she culminated her stay by being elected captain and establishing the school record for career goals with 74. In fact, the final goal of her career came during the championship game of the 2001 New England Division I Girls Hockey Tournament – and it stood up to defeat Hotchkiss, 1-0. Guay would later earn All-New England and team MVP honors for her efforts.
“Katie was one of our co-captains,” remembers Sean Keller, who was an assistant coach during that historic 2000-2001 season. “She was an outstanding leader … she led by example as well as by being a vocal leader. She had a way of getting the kids to play together and to play hard.”
From Deerfield, Guay made her way to Brown University, where she accumulated 69 points on 29 goals and 40 assists over a four-year career and earned a captaincy and an MVP award during her final season with the Bears. Once Guay’s collegiate hockey career came to a close in 2005, however, “I quickly began to miss the game … the competition …the camaraderie,” she explained. “So, I began looking for alternatives to stay in the game and someone suggested I try refereeing.”
Guay’s ascension up the officiating ladder began rather unceremoniously in 2006 by paying her dues via refereeing women’s recreational and adult leagues. By 2011, the experience she acquired along the way helped her reach the collegiate level where she began officiating women’s Division III games and some international tournaments as well.
Thanks to Stewart, Guay was the first woman to ever officiate a men’s Division I collegiate hockey game, when, back in 2015, she refereed an ECAC game between Union and Sacred Heart. Then, this past February, another milestone was attained when she became the first woman to officiate in the prestigious Beanpot Tournament. The tournament features Boston’s four Division I men’s college hockey teams: Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard.
Guay refereed a semifinal game between BC and Harvard, which BC won, 2-1, and following the game, Eagles coach Jerry York gave Stewart, who had assigned Guay to the game, his assessment of her performance when he said, “Wow, she’s terrific!”
The firsts on Guay’s resume haven’t been monopolized by the men’s game, however. She has chalked up some pretty impressive credentials while officiating women’s games, too. Among her landmark appearances was an assignment that took her to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she and three of her U.S. cohorts marked America’s officiating debut in women’s hockey during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Then, this past spring, Guay checked off another box when she and Cooke were named members of the first all-female crew to work the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four finale.
Tom Resor, the head coach of the Noble & Greenough girls hockey team has had the distinct good fortune of having brought both Guay and Cooke into his Bulldog hockey program. Guay, served as an assistant coach for nine years (2008-2017), while Cooke turned out to be one of the most prolific scorers in school history during a three-year career (2006-2009) there.
“I feel very fortunate to have had both these young women associated with the Nobles hockey program, they’ve both gone on to become outstanding ambassadors for their game and for our school,” said Resor, who coached the school’s boys hockey team for 14 years before taking over the girls program in 2000. Since then, Nobles has qualified every year for the New England Prep School Girls Hockey Tournament and has won six of them. Closer to home, his charges have captured 14 Independent School League titles.
“Having Katie on our coaching staff created a really unique situation for us,” added Resor. ”In addition to the experience she brought to us as an outstanding player on both the prep and collegiate levels, she also brought a referee’s knowledge of the game. With girls hockey being a non-checking game, Katie was able to teach our players how to play the angles … how to effectively and correctly position themselves along the boards so as to effectively slow down an opponent’s progress without drawing a penalty.”
As for Cooke, before heading off to make a name for herself at Princeton and later as a referee, the Andover, Mass., native helped lead Nobles to New England championships during her junior and senior seasons. She did so by putting the bite in the Bulldog offense, as she is one of just a few Nobles players to ever surpass the 100-point plateau – and in just three seasons. In only 82 games, Cooke accumulated 101 points on 53 goals and 48 assists.
As was the case with Guay, “once I was done playing competitively, I knew that I wanted to remain involved in the game and officiating seemed to be a perfect way to do that,” said Cooke, whose day job is that of a corporate lawyer in Boston and whose claim to fame at Princeton was landing four consecutive berths on the ECAC All-Academic Team. Those honors were bestowed in part for registering 26 goals and 23 assists for 49 points during her career – with 27 of them coming her senior year via 15 goals and 12 assists. The senior co-captain then wrapped up her career with the Tigers by being named the team’s MVP.
Cooke, who has been officiating on the NCAA Division I and International Ice Hockey Federation levels for the past decade, pulled on her first black-and-white striped jersey when she was just 12 years old. “My older brother, Evan, was a referee at the time, officiating youth hockey games in Andover on weekends and that’s how I got involved,” explained Cooke, who drew Nashville as her base for the NHL Prospect tourney, which featured rookies from the Predators, as well as from the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes.
“Overall, I felt the Prospect tourney went better than I had expected,” said Cooke. “Everyone was super supportive and I was treated just like all the other officials at the tourney by the fans, by my peers and by both team and league officials.
“I also received a good bit of positive feedback on my work from both team and league officials,” added Cooke. “I really came away feeling as though they were truly looking for people who could do the best job officiating on the NHL level no matter their gender. I am a firm believer that a woman will officiate in the NHL some day. I don’t know when that day will be, but I’m hoping it comes sooner rather than later and when that day does come, I’m planning on being there when that first woman steps out onto the ice to cheer her on.”
“Kelly’s easily one of the 10 best players I’ve ever coached here at Nobles,” said Resor. “She’s a tremendous athlete … she’s an outstanding skater and what’s more, she was what made our offense go. Just look at her stats … 101 points in 82 games … that’s averaging well over a point a game … that’s pretty darn good.”
Cooke, who was a captain her senior year, chalked up nearly half of those points (45) during her final season when she scored 23 goals and 22 assists to lead Nobles to the New England Division I title. Nine of those points came during the tourney and they included the game-winning tallies in both the championship and semifinal-round games and if you haven’t already surmised, she was named the tourney MVP.
Prior to her three years at Nobles, during which she also led the Bulldogs to a pair of ISL titles in field hockey and lacrosse and would later earn All-league laurels in both those sports, Cooke spent her eighth-grade and freshman years at Groton School. While there she earned a pair of All-ISL hockey nominations to give her a rare five-year sweep of league all-star berths.
“I was both honored and humbled to have the opportunity to be a pioneer and one of the first ever female officials to take part in the NHL’s most prestigious preseason tournament,” was the way Kendall Hanley summed up her Prospect tourney invite that saw her stationed in Detroit, where rookies from the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild competed.
“It was just an unbelievable opportunity for all four of us … the NHL is doing everything it can to put the best officials it can find on the ice for its games,” added Hanley. “In my opinion, this was an amazing first step and if any of those officials they’re looking for happen to be women, then I believe they’ll bring them in.”
Hanley played four years of hockey at Williston-Northampton (2004) and during that span, “Kendall proved not only to be one of the most skilled players we’ve ever had here, but one of the most versatile as well,” said her Wildcat coach Christa Talbot Syfu. “She had a tremendous shot from anywhere on the ice and therefor, could play up front as a wing or back on defense and it made little difference to her … she was totally comfortable at either position and was a key contributor to our program where ever she played.
“Hockey was always an important part of Kendall’s life,” added Syfu, “so I’m not surprised at all at how successful she has been in the sport as a player and as an official.”
Once she closed out her prep school career at Williston, Hanley made the first of two collegiate stops at Division III Elmira College then two years later, she transferred to SUNY Oswego. The native of Raleigh, N.C., made the switch not because of hockey, but because of her passion for animal biology and wanted to pursue a degree in zoology.
Hanley, too, quickly discovered after her graduation from Oswego that she missed the competition and camaraderie the sport of hockey had always offered her, so, like her cohorts, she found a remedy through officiating. She began her career as a whistleblower on the local level around her home in Minneapolis, Minn. Before long, however, Hanley had made it to the coveted international level, where she was hired by the IIHF. Then, other opportunities quickly were presented to her from the NCAA for Division I and III jobs, and finally an invite from the National Women’s Hockey League.
“I don’t think hockey should have any barriers,” said Hanley, “and I think it’s phenomenal that the NHL is embracing this inclusiveness and allowing people an opportunity such as this. To me, no matter if you’re a man or a woman, if you prepare properly … if you spend time making sure you’re physically ready to do your job and know the rules of the game, then you should be treated just like every other official out there. I feel I’ve always prepared myself properly and so far, I feel I’ve been treated the same as any of my peers.”
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