As the puck crosses the red line, Kirsten Welsh scans the play. Her instincts as a former star NCAA defender tell her to close the gap and stop the puck carrier before they can enter the zone. But she waits and watches. She stands at the blueline and allows the play to pass. Welsh outstretches her arms, signalling to the other officials that the play is onside. The play would not have gotten this far if Welsh was defending. When the goaltender eventually smothers the puck, Welsh takes quick strides to intervene in a scuffle before grabbing the puck to prepare for the next faceoff.
Welsh had been on the other side of this exchange for her entire life. Now, she’s calling the shots.
In 2021, Welsh became the first woman to serve as a linesperson in both OHL and AHL history.
Welsh was only two seasons removed from captaining the NCAA’s Robert Morris University Colonials. She was a USCHO.com all-rookie team selection in 2015-16 and a College Hockey America first-team star in both ’16-17 and ’17-18. In 2018, she was the CHA defender of the year. Before her NCAA days, Welsh won back-to-back Provincial Women’s Hockey League titles as a member of the Whitby Wolves.
Professional hockey seemed the likely next step for a player with her resume. But for Welsh – and many women like her – the inequity in hockey forced her in another direction. “I was really considering playing in Europe because I wanted the cultural experience as well,” Welsh said. “That was my goal going into college. But I didn’t want to pause my career. As women, we have to make that decision. If you go and play hockey, you pause your career.
“For women, there isn’t really an end game or end goal. You just play to play because you love it. I support what women are doing now, working to change this, but at that time, I wasn’t willing to commit to that, because I wanted to develop my professional career. It was a lot of commitment that I wasn’t willing to make for the amount of money I would make.”
And so, Welsh started looking for other opportunities. That was when Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s senior vice-president and director of officiating, made a phone call to one of her coaches at Robert Morris. That call changed her life.
“He contacted my assistant coach and said, ‘Is there anyone graduating who might want to try reffing?’ ” Welsh said. “I just thought, you know, ‘Why not?’ I could give it a shot and see where it takes me. I was already in great shape, just graduating from four years of a Div. I scholarship, and I thought I could give it a try, and that there must be some similarities. So, I went to the NHL Exposure Combine in 2019, which was specifically for players looking to transition into NHL referees. It was my first time reffing ever at the camp. It was a great experience of where to stand, what to look for, the bare bones of it. I did well in the on-ice testing, especially the skating test. I had good fitness testing results, and they wanted to give me a chance.”
Welsh now lives in the Pittsburgh area after finishing her playing career at Robert Morris, located in the city’s suburbs. Alongside officiating college and junior games around Pittsburgh, she quickly climbed the reffing ranks and made history in the process.
In November 2021, Welsh became the first female linesperson to officiate a game at both the OHL and AHL levels.
It’s easy to see how the gravitas of the situation could be lost on Welsh, given how quickly after her playing career she’s accomplished everything. Until this season, she’d spent her entire life trying to be the best player possible and speaking to officials from a player’s perspective. Now, she’s on the other side of the puck, breaking barriers for future generations of women in officiating.
“I don’t think I understood the magnitude at the time,” Welsh said. “I haven’t been in the officiating side long enough to understand what the limitations were for women. I was always a player focusing on that. Refs were around me, but I never really thought of that aspect or perspective. But now that I’m in it, now that I’ve been chosen to be that person representing women in officiating, it’s shown me that it’s opened up a path that was never really considered before. It was never even an option we could consider before.”
Welsh isn’t alone in the movement. She was one of four women – along with referees Katie Guay and Kelly Cooke and linesperson Kendall Hanley – to work at various NHL pre-season prospect tournaments in 2019. The same group of four trailblazers made up the officiating crew at the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.
At the AHL level this season, Cooke and Guay were joined by referees Jacqueline Zee Howard, Samantha Hiller, Laura White, Elizabeth Mantha and Amanda Tassoni, while Hanley and Welsh were joined on the lines by Alexandra Clarke, who was also working games in the WHL this season.
Welsh sees new possibilities, and she sees more than just an opportunity for herself and the small handful of officials working in men’s leagues this season. She sees an important change happening. “A path has opened up for women in future generations, just to be a part of this movement, it’s truly something I never thought I’d be a part of, to show women this opportunity is available in this day and age. It’s development for the game of hockey, and for women in sport, it’s so important to keep having these breakthroughs and show the world women can compete.”
Despite her successes, both as a player and official, it doesn’t mean Welsh has been free of the challenges that women in sport – and officials in general – regularly face. Growing up, she often had to dress for games in a janitorial closet as she predominantly played on boys’ teams in her early years. As an official, verbal abuse from fans and parents remains part of the job until hockey culture can make a more significant shift. “It’s very intimidating,” she said, “and that’s the reason why so many people don’t want to get into officiating. You have to have a very thick skin, you have to have a calm demeanor. You need to stand up for yourself and stand your ground.”
To this point, most of the harassment Welsh has faced has come at the minor-hockey level. Luckily, Welsh feels as though she’s been treated equitably in the upper echelons. “The most heckling I’ve received is during youth hockey. If you’re going to go out of your way to insult me because of my gender, you should know better, that’s not an excuse. At the higher levels, the OHL and AHL, guys pretty much treat me like any other referee, and honestly, that’s all I could ever ask for.”
She’s excited to be in the game, and the transition from player to official has been a valuable and empowering move for Welsh. “It’s been the best decision I ever made,” she said of becoming a linesperson.
Welsh knows change is coming, and she’s excited to be one of the women in hockey pushing that particular conversation forward. More importantly, she’s thrilled to be on the ice, to be the representation that young women and girls in sport can see and look up to. Whether it’s women on hockey cards, women creating and marketing hockey equipment or women in officiating, Welsh knows that if young players can see it, they can be it.
“It’s showing the players and the hockey world that women can compete at this level, and that we have the hockey knowledge that men have, and the ability to be an authoritative figure in this sport,” Welsh said. “Women have the experience and perspective to do this job well. I hope players look at a woman official and they show them the respect that they deserve. We’ve established we can do this and that we can get there, so it shouldn’t matter of their gender, it should just be the official. If they can do the job, and call the game the way they should, then they should be there.”
Someday in the not-too-distant future, there will be women officiating in the NHL, and more women will join Welsh in bringing inclusion and equity to hockey in all areas. “It’s what they can see and what they can envision,” she said. “We’re getting there, but there’s still a gap, and that’s what people are trying to do now, close that gap and make it fair.”