Female officials in the spotlight at the NHL Exposure Combine

BUFFALO — The NHL and its annual Exposure Combine help women reach new heights in officiating.

Linewomen Alexandra Clarke and Kirsten Welsh broke barriers in 2021-22. Clarke became the first female to officiate in the Western Hockey League, and Welsh made history in the Ontario Hockey League.

They were also among the first of 10 women to work as officials in the American Hockey League.

“[It’s] exceeded so many expectations,” Welsh said. “It’s just amazing to have the opportunities that have come from this camp. It’s just been a really quick rise and obviously I wouldn’t have gotten there without the help I’ve had along the way.”

Clarke and Welsh were among nine women who participated in this year’s Combine, held at the LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo. Clarke was a first-timer; Welsh participated for the third time.

Typically, the NHL aims to have at least 12 to 14 women at the camp each year, a boost from the first edition in 2014 when there was just one. A total of 39 women have participated since the opening camp.

In 2019 and 2021, the NHL selected four women who had attended the Combine in those years to work rookie tournaments around the league, and will do so again this year.

Clarke and Welsh will be among them; Clarke will be the officer under 2022 Young Stars Classic in Penticton, British Columbia, and Welsh will work 2022 NHL Prospects Showcase in Raleigh, North Carolina. Each tournament runs from Friday to Monday.

“It’s exciting,” said Al Kimmel, NHL officiating director of scouting and development. “The first phase was to give them the opportunity… [General managers and coaches] was initially hesitant for Kirsten and Alexandra about the physicality of the argument, but both Alexandra and Kirsten are not afraid of it. They are both aggressive, not anxious at all. And both can hold their own in physical combat in the game. When everyone sees that, they’re accepted by the players and the coaches and the managers.”

The NHL also provides them with off-ice opportunities through the NHL/NHL Officials Association mentoring program. The program connects them with NHL officials and gives the women the opportunity to gain insight into various areas of the profession, from preparation to on-ice situations, adversity and more, through conversations during the season.

“There is no better opportunity than learning from the people who are the best in the world,” Clarke said. “They are willing to give back their time to us, to help us develop and reinvest back into women’s development.”

Welsh said: “It’s really comforting just to have that support and that these guys want to see you do well.”

Last season was a whirlwind for Clarke. In addition to the WHL and AHL, she was also asked to referee women’s hockey at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

“I think it just validates all the work that we’ve put in behind the scenes for so many years and it’s finally coming to fruition in these opportunities that we have,” Clarke said. “We’ve worked very hard to get to these levels for so many years … and now it’s finally happening. Women have their opportunities, and I think we succeed when we get those opportunities.”

Clarke turned to refereeing when a knee injury halted her playing career. A former defenseman, she was drafted by Calgary out of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League after four years at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Forced into retirement, she missed the game immensely.

When she decided to coach and referee as a way to stay involved in the game, she chose the latter; she had officiated a bit during her high school years and saw it as an opportunity to give back to the game and still be a part of it.

And now she continues to give back by spreading the word.

“I talk to a lot of high school programs,” Clarke said. “A lot of the advice I give is … just to encourage them to keep refereeing and to encourage them to see the opportunity that lies in refereeing.”

Welsh attended the Combine for the first time in 2019 at the suggestion of her assistant coach at Robert Morris University, where she played defensive back for the Colonials.

“This camp is just incredible for getting women out there and having them try it and see where they compare to the other people they’re considering,” Welsh said. “It’s grown fast. I’m trying to spread it, too. When some hockey players I know are thinking about hanging up the skates that I played with in college, I think, ‘Why don’t you guys try it?'”

As more women choose to do just that, it appears that the path to the NHL is beginning to form.

“The barriers have been broken and there will be more and more opportunities, I think, every year,” Kimmel said. “The greater the capabilities they increase, at some point in the future I’m sure we’ll see female officers working at [NHL] level.”

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