AHL steps up for women
by Andrew Podnieks|22 OCT 2021
Referee Katie Guay in her first game in the American Hockey League.
photo: Ralph Francello / WBS Penguins
Shh. Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of walls being torn down, barriers broken, ceilings collapsing – and perceptions changing.

From Hayley Wickenheiser to Cammi Granato, Barb Underhill, Jen Botterill, and A.J. Mleczko, women are entering every aspect of the men’s hockey world. Last Saturday, a new trailblazer made her mark. Katie Guay, a referee who had extensive IIHF experience and made pioneering strides in NCAA hockey, became the first female referee to work a game in the American Hockey League, the decades-old development league for the NHL.

The 39-year-old Guay had worked the Women’s U18 in 2014, the senior Women’s Worlds a year later, and the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. She was the first woman to ref a men’s NCAA Division I game in 2017, and the first to ref a Beanpot game two years later, a classic tournament played among the four Boston-area colleges. 

But on 16 October 2021, Guay had the whistle alongside referee Brandon Schrader and linesmen J.P. Waleski and Patrick Dapuzzo as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms took on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a regular-season AHL game. 

“It’s been a process,” Guay explained of the newest highlight in her career. “Back in 2019, I went to the NHL Officiating Combine, and I went again this past August. This was a great opportunity to see what the NHL does for their officials in terms of on-ice testing, games, classroom instruction. It was a great opportunity to learn from some of the best in the game. From there I was invited to the AHL pre-season camp for referees this fall and then was given an opportunity to get on the ice.”

To make clear this is no gimmick, no one-game publicity stunt, the AHL has added ten women to its roster of on-ice officials for 2021/22. Guay was just the start, but a day later it was Kelly Cooke who had the whistle for a Rochester-Utica game. Other female referees who will get a chance this season include Laura White, Samantha Hiller, Elizabeth Mantha (sister of Washington Capitals forward Anthony Mantha) and Amanda Tassoni. Alex Clarke, who became the first female official in a WHL game a couple of weeks ago, will also work in the AHL this season on the line as well as Kirsten Welsh, who days after Clarke became the first female official in the OHL, and Kendall Hanley. All ten of these women have attended an NHL Combine as part of the NHL and NHL Officials Association’s mentorship program.

“Officials are always trying to learn and grow, so any time you can pick another official’s brain and hear their feedback and stories from their career, it’s another opportunity to grow,” Guay continued. “At the Combine there are officiating managers from the NHL, so it’s great to be able to ask questions and get feedback. The NHL is really trying to grow the officiating side of the game, in North America and across the globe.”

Guay has made a name for herself largely for her skating, the first and most important skill for working at the AHL level. She got here like any aspiring male hockey player who didn’t quite have the skill to turn pro. In Guay’s case, she played four years at Brown University (2001-05) but never represented USA Hockey at an IIHF event as a player. Wanting to keep active and stay involved in the game she loved, she turned to refereeing and has never looked back. Although she will be called an AHL referee by many, she will take her skates to myriad arenas this hockey season.

“I’m working a bunch of different leagues this year,” she smiled. “College hockey, women’s professional hockey, the AHL, youth hockey. I go wherever people send me!”

This open-mindedness has given her an abundance of experience and knowledge of how the game is played at every level, and how the rules help shape the game. 

“Every league has their standards, so it’s really about learning those standards and making sure you’re capturing that,” Guay explained. 

And how did that first game go last Saturday? 

“I felt pretty good out there,” she said. “There was a lot of anticipation leading up to the game. The hype, the amount of support I received, the messages and phone calls I got from across the globe, was just incredible.”
It was great to get that initial puck down for that first faceoff. Then the nerves calmed, and it was just another hockey game. But certainly I took it all in. It felt pretty good.
Katie Guay
First female AHL referee
Of course, the biggest differences are the speed of the game and size of the players, but Guay was neither intimidated nor overwhelmed by the occasion.

“From women’s leagues to men’s, the physicality is different, but the experience was memorable, as was the Olympics and the World Championships that I’ve participated in. This was just another incredible experience along my officiating journey. It was an exciting night, for sure.”

As for the international game, USA Hockey has a “one and done” philosophy for the on-ice officials it nominates to the IIHF, so Guay won’t be doing more tournaments as a referee, but she still loves the big-ice game and wants to keep active in it.

“I would love to stay involved with the IIHF in some capacity,” she continued. “My life as an IHF official has come to an end, but the doors will open for others to have that opportunity. But there are other ways to stay involved and I’d love to play a role in any capacity.”

Of course, Guay’s ground-breaking first game leads to the obvious question about one day making it to the NHL, and many feel it’s a question of when and whom not if it will happen. And then there is the other question – does she think a woman will ever ref an IIHF men’s World Championship game.

“I don’t know what the IIHF’s plans are, but it would be great,” she said. “I love the big ice. There’s more space in the corners, more area to cover and get into the best sightlines to see the game. We’ll see.”

Guay made history last Saturday wearing uniform number 99, a fun fact she said came about entirely by accident.

“We were provided our numbers by the league. I was just happy to have a jersey. Big shoes to fill wearing that number, but it was provided to me by the league, and I was happy to have it.”

Indeed, the league has only so many spare jerseys and her body size happened to fit that number, but one can’t help feel it was a happy accident all the same. Is she the Great One of women officials? Time will tell, but her moment is now, as it is for her colleagues.

“I think this is a huge step for females,” Guay concluded of her historic debut. “There are ten of us who will take to the ice in the AHL this year. The more visibility across various arenas, the more younger officials and former players will consider putting on the stripes. We’re looking for more people to try it, especially from those who know how to skate and who know the game, so the more exposure we’re getting helps encourage others to get out there and try it.”