Canada

Kirsten Welsh set to make OHL history as first female on-ice official: ‘I want to break that barrier down’

Ontario Hockey League history will be made Friday night at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

On the schedule, it’s a regular-season OHL game in the middle of November between the Rangers and the visiting Owen Sound Attack. On the ice, there’s greater significance.

Kirsten Welsh will be officiating her first OHL regular season game, the first female linesperson in league history. Her first OHL game was during the pre-season in Mississauga.

Her debut comes one month after the announcement that 10 female officials will work games in the American Hockey League this season, the highest level that women have reached in that position in professional hockey.

A former captain of Robert Morris University women’s hockey team (2015-19), Welsh entered the officiating realm for the first time at the NHL level in September 2019, when she worked the Buffalo Sabres’ pre-season prospects tournament.

That turned into an opportunity to officiate the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event at the 2020 NHL all-star game. After she attended the NHL officiating exposure combine, the OHL signed Welsh as part of the league’s 2021-22 roster of officials. Welsh will also be on the AHL’s 2021-22 officiating team.

Ahead of Friday’s game, the Star spoke with Welsh about her time in hockey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With Friday in Kitchener being your first OHL regular season game as an on-ice official, what are your feelings going into this momentous occasion?

Kirsten Welsh: I’m super excited about it. I’ve been working hard these past few months since the OHL pre-season game. I’ve been doing as much hockey as I can just to get in shape and prepare for it. It’s going to be a fun time.

What preparation is involved?

Welsh: You have to constantly watch your diet, watch what you are eating. But mostly just skating. I’ve been filling up my nights and days doing games of all calibre. I’m trying to study as many games as I can and to get my rule knowledge up to par. The most important part of being an official is skating and knowing the rules so it keeps you fresh.

What drew you to refereeing?

Welsh: It’s a chance to be able to continue a career on the ice. I love the game and it’s a huge passion of mine. As a referee, you need to have that passion, just like the players. It has to be something you genuinely care about. It doesn’t seem like work to me. When I have an opportunity to referee, I love being out there. We call it being “inside the glass.” That’s the dream, being able to skate inside the glass with this calibre of athletes, it’s truly an incredible experience.

Growing up in Blackstock, Ont., you were close to Oshawa. What memories do you have of the Generals and going to Gens games?

Welsh: We always used to go to games. As a kid, I played for the Oshawa Minor Generals AAA boys team. I was the only girl on the team. It was cool that my second pre-season game was at that same rink. So it hit close to home and it was a full circle moment for me. Being in that arena as a kid and feeling the energy, was something that I wanted to make part of my life.

From 2015 to 2019, you were the captain of the Robert Morris University women’s hockey team. How formative was that experience in preparing you to become a referee?

Welsh: You deal with a lot of things as a captain. You have to set an example and do the right thing. It builds your character up because you deal with referees a lot as a captain. You talk to them and you develop a rapport with the refs. Being on the other side I respect a lot of the players because I was there one time. There are transferable skills by being a captain, mainly just having the emotional intelligence to speak to my players, the coaches and the referees. It helped my journey in preparing me to be a referee. It showed me what the big picture was from the perspective of the game and as a referee, I have a lot of respect for captains and vice versa.

Describe the moment when you heard the news that you were going to be on the OHL’s roster of referees for the 2021-22 season?

Welsh: It was hard to put into words honestly. The pre-season games were like my tryout. They wanted to see how I could perform out there. When I got the email that they wanted to hire me as an official for the 2021-22 team, I cried a little bit. I didn’t know how important this opportunity would be at first. But once I did my research, I understood the impact it would have across all leagues and Ontario hockey in general. It’s been a journey and looking back on everything that’s happened the past few years, makes you think of the big picture and the impact of this opportunity.

The perception of women’s hockey has changed over the years. More women are getting involved in the sport now than ever before. How does the visibility of you being the first woman linesperson in the OHL help grow women’s hockey?

Welsh: It’s truly humbling. To have little girls at the game look up and see somebody with a bun or a ponytail through a helmet, they can be like, “well maybe that could be me one day.” I never knew that this was an attainable path. I don’t think it was back when I was playing. It was just men’s hockey — professional, semi-professional and junior — which was their realm. It’s the social movement we are in right now. It’s just things we don’t think about but once it happens, it’s like, “OK, why not?” I want to break that barrier down and show women that they can keep up skating wise with these male athletes. I want to make it known that there’s a career in officiating for women’s hockey players who feel like they don’t have options afterward in the sport.

How will you continue to use your platform to get the word out about opportunities for women in hockey?

Welsh: The main thing is just talking to people I know, girls I graduated with, and having them talk with their coaches and teams, who will inform their local communities. I don’t want to be in the spotlight all the time. I want to be here because I deserve to be here, not just because I am a female. I earned this just like any other male official and I was given the equal opportunity to do so. I feel very lucky to be the first that they chose to do this. So I will promote these opportunities for women but I also want to maintain my professionalism as a referee.

When you step out onto the ice at the Auditorium on Friday night, with your family and friends in attendance, what’s going through your mind?

Welsh: I’m treating it like any other game I’m doing. Try not to overthink it. I think if you get too much in your head, then it’s no good because you start getting anxious about what other people are thinking. I just try to be the best version I can be and the best position for the sightlines and angles to do my job. If I just treat it like another game and not overthink it, I’ll be OK.

Lukas Weese is a freelance sports writer based in Toronto.

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