Paul Stewart grew impatient waiting for Katie Guay to feel comfortable making history, so he finally did it for her. The director of officiating for ECAC Hockey, one of the NCAA’s six Division I hockey conferences, Stewart informed Guay that he had scheduled her to referee a game between Union and Sacred Heart in 2015. She figured it was a routine women’s college hockey assignment — until he told her it was a men’s game, a step she had been reluctant to take.
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” she told him.
“Now you’re second-guessing me?” he fired back.
And just like that, Guay became the first woman to officiate in Division I men’s college hockey. Last month, she served as a referee for a game between Harvard and Boston College in the Beanpot, becoming the first female official in the history of the prominent tournament. Might she also become the first woman to referee an NHL game one day?
Of the major professional sports, the NHL is the only league to not have a woman officiate on its stage, exhibition or otherwise, and it is actively looking to change that. To help identify potential future officiating talent for the NHL and other professional leagues, the NHL has been encouraging women to participate in its annual combine.
NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom said the league plans to reach out to Division I coaches this year for help spreading the word about the NHL Exposure Combine to their seniors, women’s players in particular. The ideal candidate is a strong skater, a requirement to keep up in a game that’s as fast as it has ever been. The appeal to players: It’s a way to stay in hockey after their college career is over. Walkom even tried to sell Kendall Coyne Schofield on it after the U.S. women’s national team forward posted an impressive lap of 14.346 seconds in the NHL’s fastest skater competition at the All-Star Game in January.
Guay was one of seven women who were invited to the combine this past August, but she and two others had scheduling conflicts.
“I don’t think we really have a deadline for putting a woman [official] in the NHL,” Walkom said. “I think we want the most talented individuals doing our games regardless of who they are or where they’re from. Our big goal is to just deepen the pool of aspiring young officials, men and women, and get them involved and get them to try officiating, especially those that are great athletes and great skaters who played at a pretty high level. And then I know one day, somebody is going to like it enough and be good at it that one day we see them in pro hockey.”
Violet Palmer became the first woman to call an NBA game in 1997, and after Sarah Thomas made her debut as an NFL official in 2015, she worked a playoff game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers this January. While there hasn’t been a female umpire in an MLB game, women have worked spring training games. Sandra Hunt, Nancy Lay and Kari Seitz worked as center referees in MLS roughly two decades ago.
“What it comes down to is, it doesn’t take an X or a Y chromosome to stick your hand in the air and call a penalty,” said Stewart, who called more than 1,000 NHL games over two decades. “Which lavatory you use doesn’t really matter to me. When I hire you, I hire you for your ability to recognize penalties and skate and get in shape and be where you need to be to make the call.”
Guay became a referee in 2006, when gas prices had just spiked and she needed some extra cash to recoup the money she was spending driving to and from women’s league games. She had played four years of college hockey at Brown and she missed being in the rink. But what started as a part-time gig shifted to something more serious when Guay realized officiating could lead her to international tournaments.
Stewart said he has six women on his officiating roster, including Guay, and he has recruited them personally, constantly handing out his business card. Though Guay initially laughed off Stewart’s suggestion that she referee men’s Division I games, she now works an equal amount of men’s and women’s games. After Guay refereed the Beanpot game between Boston College and Harvard, legendary Eagles Coach Jerry York had some unsolicited feedback for Stewart. “She’s superb. What a great skater and good demeanor,” York told him.
“This isn’t a gimmick,” Stewart said. “She’s got the right stuff.”
While the focal point will be the NHL level, Guay said she believes the path for adding more female officials needs to begin at the game’s lesser levels.
“I do think it’ll happen in my lifetime for a female to get out there in the NHL, but I think in order for it to happen, assigners at the lower level, the junior level, need to provide opportunities to females in order for us to see a female referee in the NHL,” Guay said. “As players develop and grow and make it to the show, officials are put on a similar path, so they need to be given the development at the lower levels first in order for them to work their way up. . . . That’s something that I’m hoping, me being out there at the college level will open not only young kids’ eyes to realize that there’s potential out there, but also assigners’ eyes in providing more opportunities for females in the boys’ and men’s game.”
Two NHL players interviewed for this story were supportive of women refereeing their games, but they wondered whether a woman could be a linesman, because that official is tasked with breaking up post-whistle scrums and fights. Elizabeth Mantha, who attended the NHL Exposure Combine in August, has worked as a referee and a linesman in Quebec, and she said she has had to break up a few fights in games with 15- to 17-year-old boys.
“But I’m 5-foot-10 almost, so for me, it’s okay,” she said. “I may not be as strong as a man, but I was able to do something at least. … Sometimes you just need to talk in a fight and tell the players and guys to stop and just speak with them and work with them. Sometimes you can get away with that. We have tactics.”
Said Walkom: “We have less and less fighting in the game now than we ever have. You just need to be agile and quick and a great backwards skater and a great communicator as a linesman with some good hockey sense. I wouldn’t rule out one position over the other.”
Every official, man or woman, has had to deal with criticism and occasional verbal abuse over their calls — and that’s part of the reason it’s so hard not only to recruit people to be officials but then get them to stick with it. Hockey Canada’s officiating registration for the 2017-18 season was 28,937 men and 2,024 women, and USA Hockey has 25,272 men and 1,561 women for 2018-19. Mantha said she is the only woman who officiates men’s games in Quebec, which puts and even bigger spotlight on her
“It’s really a hard world to be in,” she said. “They’re going to try to take advantage of the fact that we’re women and think maybe that we’re maybe more soft and we don’t apply the rules and we can get run over.”
Guay is often asked how male coaches and players regard her. Her answer is that she is usually treated like any other official, which is all she wants.
“Getting a few f-bombs is really a sign of respect because that means they’re not treating me any differently than any of the other officials out there,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun. When I first got into it, doing guys’ hockey was something that I never thought was a possibility.”