Kirsten Welsh, ready to make history at OHL as the first official woman on ice: ‘I want to break that barrier’

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

On the schedule, it’s a mid-November regular season OHL game between the Rangers and the visiting Owen Sound Attack. On ice, there is greater importance.

Kirsten Welsh will officiate her first OHL regular season game, the female front row in league history. His first OHL game was during the preseason in Mississauga.

Her debut comes a month after the announcement that 10 women will perform in American Hockey League games this season, the highest level ever reached by women at that position in professional hockey.

A former captain of the Robert Morris University women’s hockey team (2015-19), Welsh first entered the umpiring arena at the NHL level in September 2019, when she worked in the Buffalo preseason prospects tournament. Sabers.

That became an opportunity to officiate the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event in the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. After attending the NHL Referee Exposure Combine, the OHL signed Welsh as part of the roster. of officials 2021-22 of the league. Welsh will also be on the AHL 2021-22 referee team.

Before Friday’s game, Star spoke to Welsh about his time in hockey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Given that Friday at Kitchener is your first OHL regular season game as an official on ice, how do you feel about this momentous occasion?

Kirsten Welsh: I am very excited about that. I have been working hard these last few months since the OHL preseason game. I’ve been doing all the hockey that I can to get in shape and prepare for it. It’s going to be a fun time.

What preparation does it involve?

Welsh: You have to constantly monitor your diet, watch what you eat. But mostly skating. I have been filling my days and nights playing games of all caliber. I am trying to study as many games as I can and bring my knowledge of rules up to par. The most important part of being an officer is skating and knowing the rules to keep cool.

What attracted you to arbitration?

Welsh: It is an opportunity to continue a race on ice. I love the game and it is a great passion for me. As a referee, you have to have that passion, just like the players. It has to be something that you really care about. It doesn’t look like work to me. When I have the opportunity to be a referee, I love being there. We call it being “in the glass.” That is the dream, to be able to skate inside the glass with this caliber of athletes, it is truly an incredible experience.

Growing up in Blackstock, Ontario, he was close to Oshawa. What memories do you have of the generals and going to the 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 great that my second preseason game was on the same track. So it felt really good and it was a full circle moment for me. Being in that arena as a child and feeling the energy was something I wanted to make part of my life.

From 2015 to 2019, you were 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. Strengthen your character because you deal a lot with the referees as captain. You talk to them and develop a good relationship with the referees. Being on the other side I respect a lot of players because I was there once. There are transferable skills from being a captain, mainly just from having the emotional intelligence to talk to my players, the coaches and the referees. He helped me on my journey to prepare to be a referee. He showed me what the big picture was from a game perspective and as a referee I have a lot of respect for captains and vice versa.

Describe the moment you heard the news that you were going to be on OHL’s referee list for the 2021-22 season.

Welsh: It was difficult to put it into words honestly. The preseason games were like my test. They wanted to see how I could perform there. When I got the email that they wanted to hire me as an officer for the 2021-22 team, I cried a little. At first I did not know how important this opportunity would be. But once I did my research, I understood the impact it would have on all leagues and Ontario hockey in general. It has been a journey and looking back at everything that happened in the last few years, it makes you think about the bigger picture and the impact of this opportunity.

The perception of women’s hockey has changed over the years. More women are getting involved in sports now than ever. How does the visibility that you are the first woman in the OHL line help the growth of women’s hockey?

Welsh: It is really humiliating. For the girls in the game to look up and see someone wearing a bun or ponytail through a headpiece, they can say, “well, maybe that could be me one day.” I never knew this was an achievable path. I don’t think it was when I was playing. It was just men’s, professional, semi-professional and youth hockey, which was his kingdom. It is the social movement in which we are now. It’s just things that we don’t think about, but once they happen, it’s like, “Okay, why not?” I want to break that barrier and show women that they can keep skating wisely with these male athletes. I want to make it known that there is a career in the craft of female hockey players who feel they have no options later in the sport.

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

Welsh: The main thing is to just talk to people I know, girls I graduated from, and have them talk to 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 woman. I earned this like any other male civil servant and I had the same opportunity to do so. I feel very lucky to be the first to choose to do this. So I will promote these opportunities for women, but I also want to maintain my professionalism as a referee.

When you hit the ice in the Auditorium on Friday night, with your family and friends in attendance, what is going through your mind?

Welsh: I treat it like any other game I’m making. Try not to overthink it. I think if you get too into your head then it’s not good because you start to feel anxious about what other people are thinking. I’m just trying to be the best version I can be and the best position for the sight lines and angles to do my job. If I treat it like another game and don’t overthink it, I’ll be fine.

Lukas Weese is a freelance sports writer living in Toronto.


The conversations are the opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not endorse these views.

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