BUFFALO, N.Y. — Once the butterflies and adrenalin rush of officiating her first National Hockey League prospects game subsided, Kirsten Welsh woke up Saturday eager to get back on the ice again.
Whatever miscues Welsh made and hesitancy showed during her debut at the Buffalo Sabres prospects tournament a day earlier were overshadowed by how much she enjoyed the experience. There was also the realization that she might have a future as an NHL linesman — or is it lineswoman?
“I just think this is what I love. This is what I’ve always been about,” Welsh told The Associated Press by phone before preparing to officiate her second tournament game Saturday. “Having the opportunity to pursue this is just unbelievable. I can’t tell you how thankful I am.”
The 22-year-old from Toronto was, as she put it, “thrown into the fire” by working a game between Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins prospects. Aside from calling offside and icing and handling face-offs, the 5-foot-10 Welsh was unafraid to get in the middle of several post-whistle scrums.
“I think the guys were kind of thrown off that a girl was rushing in there to break them up,” said Welsh, who completed a four-year college career playing defense at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh last season.
Welsh has the potential of becoming a trailblazer in a role that has been exclusively reserved for men at the NHL level until Friday. That was when the league announced that Welsh was one of four women selected for the first time to officiate the league’s various prospect tournaments held around the nation.
Welsh is joined by Katie Guay and Kelly Cooke, who were selected as referees to work tournaments in Anaheim, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. Kendall Hanley was assigned to work as a linesman at the Detroit Red Wings tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.
The four were chosen after being among 89 participants — 11 of them women — at the NHL’s annual officials scouting combine in Buffalo last month. And they become the first women assigned to work on the ice in a competitive NHL setting.
All four are considered candidates to eventually break the NHL’s officiating gender barrier, which has become a point of emphasis stressed by commissioner Gary Bettman and the league’s director of officiating, Stephen Walkom.
The NBA has had female officials since Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired in 1997. Sarah Thomas was the NFL’s first female official in 2015. Pam Postema, in 2000, was the first female to umpire a Major League Baseball spring training game, and at least two women are currently working at the Triple-A level.
Al Kimmel, the NHL’s director of scouting and development for officiating, told the AP last month that the growth of women’s hockey has led to a surge of candidates.
“In my six years here, the growth and improvement of the on-ice and off-ice abilities match some of the men and surpass some of the men,” Kimmel said. “We’ve got some high-caliber women officials here that have world-class experience that are going to show some of the boys some things out there.”
Guay is the most experienced of the four. Her 14-year officiating career includes working women’s games at last year’s Winter Olympics and college men’s games, and being part of the first all-female officiating crew to work the women’s NCAA Frozen Four championship last spring.
Her lifelong objective was limited to working the Olympics before finally realizing the possibility of working in the NHL.
“I think it’s huge,” she said last month of the chance of being selected to work an NHL prospects game. “I think any time people are given a chance and new paths are formed, it opens eyes for others to kind of dream bigger.”