Clarke made her own break
by Andrew Podnieks|03 OCT 2021
Alex Clarke officiates a game during the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Last Friday, Alex Clarke made history by becoming the first woman to officiate a game in a major men’s junior league in Canada when she stepped on the ice with whistle in hand for the Regina Pats vs. Moose Jaw Warriors WHL game.

The 27-year-old linesperson from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, who in IIHF competition has officiated as Alexandra Blair, was just coming off a successful stint working the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Calgary, including the bronze medal game, and these two events capped a remarkable three-year period in her life. 

Consider that in 2018 she was working the lines in the U18 Women’s Worlds, Division I-B Qualification, but her rise has been meteoric ever since. She moved from WW18 to Women’s Worlds, from Division I to the top level in Calgary last month. 

Most impressively, she worked her way up with high ambitions in mind, and her tremendous confidence off ice allowed her to excel on it. Indeed, it was she who began the process of reaching the WHL when she established a working relationship with Kevin Muench, the WHL’s head of officiating, and pursued him without hesitation.

“I reached out to Kevin this summer to ask him about my development and what I need to do to get to the WHL,” Clarke explained of the process. “It was my informal way of expressing my interest in working in the league. I wanted to know where I was at, to see if I was on his radar. I think sometimes people don’t know you’re interested in something until you tell them. I’ve been working in the Saskatchewan junior league the last few years. He put a lot back on me, in terms of my strengths and weaknesses. We had some conversations throughout the summer and then in July, just before I went into quarantine for the Women’s Worlds, we got together and he said he’d be interested in giving me a few games at the start of the season and see how I did. But we kept it quiet because we didn’t want any distractions for the event itself. Then when I got back from Calgary, they sent out the exhibition schedule and assignments, and that’s when I knew when my first game would be.”

From Muench’s perspective, it was a welcome call and only served to impress upon him how serious she was about joining a league no woman had ever been a part of. 

“I’ve seen her quote a few times over the last four or five years,” he related. “She was at a mid-range camp put on by Hockey Saskatchewan the first time, and I remember phoning Jacquie Palm in Toronto and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a female official to keep our eyes on.’ Then she was at a Hockey Canada Level 5 camp a couple of years ago and we had a brief discussion. About a year and a half ago she called me and said I just want to make sure you know I’m interested. Can you tell me what I need to do to get there?”

Muench refereed at the World Juniors (1990), World Championships (1992 gold-medal game), and Olympics (1994), and is an important element in the changing mentality in hockey where women are an equal part of the game, not inferior, not a sideshow.

“In my position here as senior director of officiating, part of my role is development,” he stated. “We have our own camp for prospects. It’s not unusual to watch female officials, and we’ve had a few on our radar for a while, but Alex was the first one I felt was ready to make the step. We know that eventually there will be females on the ice at every level of hockey. It’s just a matter of time, but it has to be right. It can’t be a gimmick.”

Over the last two years Clarke focused on working on all the skills any linesperson would need – skating and leg strength, power, conditioning, game knowledge. As she worked, she watched, and over time she came to believe in herself and her abilities. 

“Making the WHL has been a goal of mine for a while, and I’ve been working hard towards it,” she continued. “Two years ago, when the last full season ended, I felt I knew where I aligned with the other officials in terms of qualifications. Then last year in the bubble some young officials got their debut, and I got to thinking that I was right in the mix with those officials. I’m more ready now than I’ve ever been. And that confidence came in part from a book that I read about women creating their own opportunities.”

You can’t make a call like that without feeling confident, and you can’t feel confident on the phone if you’re not confident on the ice, and vice versa. And where does confidence come from? Training, preparation, comfort with yourself and your abilities.

“A lot of improving has to do with confidence, and off-ice confidence translates into on-ice confidence a lot of the time,” Clarke explained. “Even me just having the confidence to reach out to Kevin was good to show him that I have that confidence and belief in myself. But I trained harder more than I ever have in the last 18 months. I think skating is one of my strong suits, but I’m not as strong or as quick or as explosive as a male, so I had to focus on that and work with my off-ice training on that.”
Alex Clarke (left) was part of the officiating crew for the bronze medal game of the recent 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
And how did that first game go last Friday?

“It went well, actually,” Clarke said – with confidence! “I didn’t feel out of place at all. The speed wasn’t an issue. The players were fast but you can predict what’s going to happen and anticipate. Kevin was at the game and we had a post-game talk. One of things he mentioned was my transition up the ice, and on a turnover I need to have the speed to get back to my blue line.”

“She did well,” Muench agreed. “Every time we have new officials, there’s going to be an adjustment. The players skate faster, the bodies are bigger, the puck moves faster, everything happens at a different pace, so regardless if you’re male or female, you’re going to have to make some adjustments. She adjusted quickly. As she said to me after, though, because play is so structured, it’s easier to move and anticipate. But it’s like a new player – you don’t step into a new league and instantly conquer it. It takes a while. But if you have the ability, you grow to that higher level, and I believe she possesses that ability.”

Muench’s philosophy is a simple one, and makes perfectly good sense. “I think whatever level you officiate, you need to be at the same level of conditioning as the players, and you need to be able to skate as well as those players.”

The good news is that the one pre-season game has translated into regular season work as well. 

“Regular season starts soon, and I’ve officially been hired by the WHL,” Clarke confirmed. “I have four regular-season games for the month of October.”

The history will continue, which is great news. Clarke’s season is now underway, and she has two clear goals in mind – learning and growing as a WHL official, and being named to the IIHF’s officiating crew for the Beijing Olympics.

“I officiate in all the leagues below the WHL in Saskatchewan, and hopefully I’ll have some IIHF events as well,” she continued. “My main goal right now, apart from the WHL, is the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. But I want to make sure I give the WHL the attention it deserves, so I want to do whatever I need to do to do well at the WHL.”

Of course, no sooner has Clarke made history at the WHL level than people start to think beyond, even to the Holy Grail of officiating. Will Clarke, or another woman, one day work an NHL game?

“I think that’s absolutely going to happen,” Muench declared. “The NHL has a combine officials camp every year, and for the past several years there have been female officials. I don’t doubt there will be female officials taking the same route as the male officials to the NHL. But it has to be the right person. It can’t be simply to say we’ve done it.”

The ultimate dream is not lost on Clarke, who approaches the goal with a measured and calm eye. “There are other leagues that come first, like the AHL. I won’t deny those opportunities if they come my way, but there is a progression. I’ll measure my own progress, but I also have a husband and two-year-old daughter, so I have to keep them in mind!”