We’ve already watched Sarah Thomas work as a sideline official for this year’s Super Bowl and as many as seven female referees be employed by the National Basketball Association.
Which begs the question: What’s taking the National Hockey League so long to break the ice ceiling?
Laura White, among the top U.S. hockey referees who has officiated high-level women’s competition around the world, says she’s hopeful it happens in the next few years.
Former American Hockey League linesman Scott Adams takes that one step further, predicting it will in fact happen within the next few years.
All signs point to a breakthrough in the not too distant future, mainly because in this day and age, such a move would not only be the right thing to do on a societal level but also for the game.
White, a Pennsauken, New Jersey, native currently residing in nearby Runnemede, has played ice hockey since age 4 and knows of what she speaks.
Female officials have shown they can execute their duties at lower level men’s professional leagues and they have been in communication with the NHL to open a trail for the most qualified distaff refs and linespeople.
“I hope it’s within the next few years,” said White, 33, “I know that some of the officials within the NHL development program for USA Hockey women’s division went to the combine last year and were able to do a couple exhibition games and things of that sort.
“So it’s definitely a goal I know a lot of my fellow officials want to break into, myself as well, as soon as possible.”
White played both Division I ice hockey (right wing, later defense) and field hockey for Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh, then began a six-year stint as a government contractor in Virginia before returning to the Philadelphia area.
Her older brother, John, started a career in hockey officiating years before and finally convinced his sister to give it a try when she turned 26.
Now she travels the globe to patrol rinks, including most recently a Women’s NHL season/playoff tournament at Lake Placid, New York, which was cut short when the current COVID pandemic sidelined too many players.
“I was very excited to be selected for it,” White said. “Leading up to it was just stressful, making sure I was doing the right things to quarantine and prepare. Obviously I wish it made it through to the end. It really was a pretty cool experience to be associated with.”
She grew up playing youth hockey with the Thunderbirds and later the Junior Phantoms. It gave her an appreciation of just how fast the game can be.
It seemed to get even faster when she tried her hand at officiating.
“Hockey has pretty much molded my entire life,” she said. “My father (John Sr.) played street hockey.
“I started officiating later than my brother. I’m sure he wanted to push me to start sooner.”
When did she realize officiating was right for her?
“Honestly, my first game skating was with my brother. You just get out there and I was like ‘I feel like I know nothing.’ It’s just a completely different view of the game,” she said with a chuckle. “Playing the game gives you the insight and knowledge of the rules, positioning and view of the game — but this is a completely different thing to learn.
“But I loved it. It was so nice to be part of the game again and having that kind of competition back in my life.”
Adams played hockey for Neshaminy High School back in the day and recently retired after a distinguished career in the officiating ranks.
As for refereeing the sport, the door appears to be already ajar.
“The time has come,” Adams said. “It’s good for the game, good to help women, it’s good for ratings.”
Adams believes a breakthrough could happen by moderate progression.
“It’s quite a jump (from lower leagues),” Adams said. “I would like to see how a woman would fare in an NHL preseason game first. See how it goes there. Preseason games, you’re getting speed and craziness, because the young guys are trying to make an impression.
“That would be the test. Then you could talk about going up a level.”
White has worked the Eastern Hockey League, junior leagues and American Collegiate Hockey Association games, along with the WNHL and International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments.
The top female officials have been working with their counterparts in the NHL to prepare themselves for when the big break comes.
“We have a mentorship program,” White explained. “The head of USA Hockey from the women’s division, Matt Leaf, he set up a call with the NHL officials. We have a lot of our internationally licensed and higher-level in the development program officials from the U.S. and Canada. They have a bunch of referees and linesmen.
“So we were doing a Zoom call once a week. Now we’re picking back up again. It’s just an open communication … experiences and being able to talk and relate to the linesmen and refs who have been volunteering their time to talk with us on the calls.”
Soon, both women and men alike will be getting an earful from the fans in the stands on a nightly basis.
And the hockey world will be a better place for it.