Refereeing at highest level a long shot in NHL

In 1995, Heather McDaniel made news all over the country as the first woman to officiate a men's professional hockey game. For a number of years she worked minor league games in the Central Hockey League and the West Coast Hockey League.

In 1999, she got pregnant and stopped working pro hockey. There hasn't been a female referee in the men's professional game since.

There are roughly 2,800 registered female hockey officials in North America today, but just a few have worked the men's game, and none at a higher level than juniors.

Times have changed since McDaniel roamed the ice. The women's game has developed and flourished, giving accomplished female officials plenty of work without having to cross over to the men's game.

McDaniel never thought she'd be the last of her kind.

"At that point there wasn't really any women's hockey that could challenge me and help me hone my skills," she said. "The way I looked at it, I just wanted to move up the ranks. I didn't have this idea of male and female, I just wanted whatever was the best hockey to make me the best official. And there really wasn't much of a choice."

In the mid-'90s, girls' and women's hockey hadn't yet taken hold, so even the women's national championship tournaments were rinky-dink affairs when compared with the men's events. McDaniel got a shot in the USHL and worked her way up to the minor leagues, all the while downplaying her role as a trailblazer.

"It didn't even occur to me that I was doing something special until I showed up at training camp [for the CHL] and there were newspaper people and TV and radio people," she said.

For today's female officials, being the best means working the highest-level women's games.

From the start of their careers, they're trained to cover international and college women's hockey, with a focus on one day working the Olympics. Because the style of women's college and international hockey is much different from the men's pro game, male and female officials head down different paths early in their officiating careers.

"In the international game and the women's game there isn't the same sense of aggression that there is in the [NHL]," said Terry Gregson, the NHL Director of Officiating. "[The women's game] is more of a free-flowing type of hockey game where contact is less."

Gregson has seen how the rise of the women's game has resulted in big changes for female officials.

"I've been around about 32 years now in pro hockey," he said. "I remember early on a couple girls were giving it a shot [working the men's side], let's say at the junior level, but really since the development of the women's game, women that I knew that were talented officials channeled their energies more to try to get the plum assignment of the Olympics.

"... Quite frankly, I haven't had any contact with any [female officials] in my tenure here in management now and haven't really heard of any [interested in the NHL] along the way either."

Officials are watched and rated as they work lower levels, then scores are tabulated and the most promising are promoted. Because female officials almost exclusively work girls' and women's games, they aren't likely to be seen by NHL scouts.

Nine-year officiating veteran Leah Wrazidlo and fellow USA Hockey official Kelli Rolstad have reached the Holy Grail, working the Vancouver Olympics. Yet neither is likely to work international tournaments again. They will officiate mostly women's college hockey and clear the way for up-and-coming officials to get the experience necessary to qualify for the Olympics.

"I've had my shot, and now it's somebody else's turn," Rolstad said.

Matt Leaf, director of the Officiating Education Program at USA Hockey, explained that while there is no official policy in place, "it has been the general practice in the U.S. and Canada to provide those types of opportunities to more officials because we have so many officials who are capable and have earned that right.

"Without that 'carrot' -- so to speak -- they would have no reason to strive to be the best, and this is especially true on the women's side where they don't have the opportunity to work at professional levels or make a career out of officiating. For them -- the Olympic Games are their NHL."

Still, women have been reluctant to seek a full-time career working men's pro hockey. Many said trying to beat out 50,000-plus men's officials for spots in the minor leagues and the NHL just isn't practical.

"I think anybody that's realistic would realize and understand that it's two different worlds," Wrazidlo said. "The men's ice hockey world is completely different from the women's ice hockey world, and if you want to work on the men's side, you can try, but the success ratio is against you."

McDaniel isn't surprised today's female officials don't share her drive to work on the men's side.

"Why would they?" she said. "When they don't even know if they would get an opportunity [on the men's side?] Let's say 2 percent of men make it to junior or pro hockey and then the same percentage of women? That's just so few people that would ever make it. It's not even in the minds of these girls to do male professional hockey."

Todd Anderson, manager of officiating at Hockey Canada, said there are no size or stature requirements when selecting top officials, but that athleticism and skating ability are a major part of the job and a big factor in deciding which officials move up the ranks.

"One of my favorite sayings," he said, "is 'As an official you've got to be at or above the level of the player.' Players have gotten so much better, so officials have to, too."

McDaniel agreed that the physical demands of working the men's game can't be overlooked.

She was a referee in the minors, and therefore in charge of calling penalties, communicating with coaches and players, and acting as the on-ice leader of the officiating team. She says that working as a linesman would have been far more difficult, as linesmen are in charge of breaking up fights, restraining players and monitoring all the physical action on the ice. McDaniel said she had met some very strong male officials who struggled to keep up as linesmen because they were on the shorter side.

Winning the numbers game and keeping up physically aren't the only challenges female officials face on the men's side. McDaniel, who is now getting her Ph.D. in archeology, said many women aren't willing to give up family and other career aspirations to make officiating a full-time gig.

"Being a referee, you're on the road all the time," she said. "I found when I became pregnant with my son, I thought at first, 'I could do this,' but if you're a pro ref, you're on the road for three-quarters of the month. It's difficult to have a family.

"Also, a lot of these women are getting big scholarships from colleges and getting their degree while they play. They're well-rounded individuals. The hockey and the reffing is something that's a side endeavor for them, it's not a career."

In spite of all the challenges, Erin Blair, who's finishing her 11th season as an official, said she doesn't doubt a woman could work in the NHL.

"I think there are definitely plenty of women officials that are capable of working men's hockey at the highest level," she said. "It's just a matter of getting the right attitudes and the right people to help you break through the obstacles that are there. It would probably take a lot."