What once was a question of “if’’ has now simply become a matter of “when.’’
The recent hiring of 10 women by the American Hockey League to become on-ice officials signals a seminal moment in the sport of professional ice hockey.
Seven of them are referees, including Pennsauken, N.J. native Laura White, along with three linesmen (or, lineswomen in this new era).
White, 34, has a long career of officiating at the minor league, international, college and high school levels.
Any questions about whether she can handle this latest assignment – in a league considered the second best in North America – were going to be answered in a two-day span over the weekend.
On Saturday night, she was scheduled to ref the Hartford Wolf Pack-Lehigh Valley Phantoms at the PPL Center in Allentown. No pressure there, right? Just thousands of fans screaming their heads off whenever a questionable call was to be made.
On Friday night, the current Runnemede, N.J. resident was assigned to oversee the CAN/AM women’s series game between Canada and USA, also at PPL Center, a game which brought together some of the best female hockey players in the world. This match was of particular interest because the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are less than four months away.
Anyway, many eyes in the hockey community were on White and her colleagues to see how they handled the spotlight.
The feeling is if these pioneers perform up to expectations, some or all could be promoted to the National Hockey League, perhaps as soon as the 2022-23 season.
Should White be one of the selectees, it would be a dream come true for her.
“I think it (promotion to the AHL) is a great sign,’’ White said in a telephone conversation. “The NHL and the AHL work very closely together and we’ve had a lot of the same supervisors at the NHL Exposure Combine and NHL training camp that happened for this season. So I know they’re in close communication. But the objective now for us here, nothing is guaranteed, we have to make sure we put in the work, the time, keep focused on getting things right and learning from our mistakes.’’
White attended the combine in Buffalo back in August and the experience proved invaluable.
The first step in the process took place earlier in the year when the women’s division of USA Hockey, led by Matt Leaf, set up a call with NHL officials.
“We have a mentorship program,’’ White explained during an interview back in March. “The head of USA Hockey from the women’s division, Matt Leaf, set up a call with the NHL officials. We have a lot of our internationally licensed and higher-level officials in the development program from the U.S. and Canada. They have a bunch of referees and linesmen. So we were doing a Zoom call once a week. 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.’’
Out of that, White learned about the inner workings of the hiring process.
“For me, none of this would have happened if we didn’t have that first step,’’ White said the other day. “That open communication, that’s where I learned about the Exposure Combine application. They let us know applications were due for the combine. I literally applied the last day. I was hopeful but I didn’t have any expectations. I was thrilled when I got in. I started going really hard with nutrition, training and everything to prepare myself for that opportunity.’’
The weekend action in Allentown promised to be both fun and nerve-racking.
“I’m excited and nervous,’’ she said. “I have the Canada-USA game and then my first AHL game. But at least they’re at the same arana.
“It’s surreal to me. I said after training camp and everything, I took it as an opportunity to get better and improve myself. I didn’t expect anything to come of it. They said ‘no, you’re on the staff. You’re hired.’ So I guess it still hasn’t set into me until I step on the ice. For me, the focus is on studying the rulebook, making sure I’ve got it right at this level. I’m just thrilled to be here.’’
On the flip side of this, there’s always that element of society which resists progress and wants to stay stuck in 1957. Problem for them is, the gender barrier pertaining to officiating has already been broken in the NFL and the NBA. So, perhaps to their chagrin, we move forward as a society and there’s no going back now.
Of course, that doesn’t mean White and her cohorts won’t be hearing it – perhaps extra loud – from leather-lunged fans who question their credibility.
And the social media hounds? That’s a whole other hockey game.
“A lot of people are concerned with us being there, the social media comments,’’ White said. “I guess my point of emphasis is we’re not expecting to jump into the NHL tomorrow. We still have a lot of work to do at this level. We just got here. But we have a great support system. The NHL has been really good with communication. The supervisors are all great. I went down to Tampa for the rookie training camp series. . .there were six games there. I was ref for one game each day and there was an NHL supervisor on hand as well. He was really good with the feedback. There’s different positioning for different levels of play. He was really helping me with that.’’
The young women need to have thick skin and a shutoff switch for outside commentary.
“Players, coaches, fans can be nasty to any official at any level,’’ White said. “We’re used to it. It’s not something we enjoy but we’re used to it. Out of sight, out of mind. Just stay focused in order to get the game right.’’
White listed fitness and positioning as two key areas of possible improvement for women officials.
“You can’t make any right calls if you’re not in the right spot,’’ she said. “Being able to read the play is the most important part, it’s a new level of play for all of us breaking into a new league. Being in the best position is key to reading plays and getting out of players’ way.’’
If she were to be hired by the NHL, it truly would be a dream come true.
“It would be milestone that I’ve thought about,’’ she said. “But it’s not something I stress or worry about. I’ve always focused on one game at a time, one league at a time. Just learn at each level.
“So it’s a milestone that I’m honored to be a part of. I want to do everything I can physically and mentally to make sure I can seek any opportunity that may come.’’