In 1990, when the IIHF introduced women’s hockey to its program, the World Women’s Championship was referreed mostly by men.
Within a few years, though, the IIHF, wanting to be consistent and to promote the women’s game, ruled that all officials had to be female. And so, starting in 1997, that has been the case.
In the 20 years since, no woman has refereed more Canada-United States games than Nicole Hertrich of Germany. Indeed, she has had the whistle for five gold-medal games involving the North Americans, and she has been a top-level ref in women’s hockey for a decade.
Hertrich grew up in Iserlohn, Germany, and got her start in hockey like any boy from Kalamazoo or Kingston might have.
“My parents used to take me to hockey games when I was small, but I didn’t want to go because they always arrived two hours early,” she explained. “But when I did go, I thought it was amazing. And one day, during intermission of a game, they made an announcement that they were looking for girls to play, so I asked my mom to take me. I was about 12 years old. I went to the first practice and loved it, and I have been at the rink ever since. I played hockey with my club team for more than 16 years, and for the national team. We also won the national championship.”
By the time she was in her late twenties, though, Hertrich was ready for a change.
“A friend of mine who was a referee—Michaela Kiefer—told me I should try doing that. At first, I said no, because I always had the most penalty minutes on my team and referees didn’t really like me! But I knew I wasn’t going to play much longer, and I needed a new challenge, and I still wanted to be involved in hockey. I figured I could always just stop if I didn’t like it, but I liked it.”
Like so many refs, she started as a linesman, to get a feel for the game, the pace, the rules, life on ice without a stick and puck. Then fate intervened.
“The German Federation told me they needed referees more, so I changed to refereeing. I moved up quite quickly, actually. I did one year at the local level, then national, and then to the IIHF. Because there aren’t so many women it’s easier to move up, much more so than the men.”
Hertrich discovered that being a referee within the IIHF, with more than 70 member nations, was also a great way to see the world.
“One of my first tournaments was in North Korea, which was amazing,” she noted. “Now I’m at the top level, so I don’t get a chance to go to exotic places like this, but it was a great experience.”
In 2008, Hertrich was assigned the officiate the top level of the Women’s Worlds, in Harbin, China. She had the whistle for three games during the tournament’s early days and did so well she was assigned the gold-medal game featuring Canada and the United States. It was an honor she has never forgotten but one that has been repeated frequently. Hertrich also called the North American finals in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016.
There’s a reason for that. For starters, and with only a couple of exceptions, the IIHF likes to have a referee from a nation other than those competing in any game, at any level. Hertrich also has impressed supervisors with her skating and, most important of all, her interpretation of the rules. Make no mistake—a Canada-United States game is different, and only the highest caliber officials can handle that matchup.
“The speed is an important factor, and the rivalry is special,” Hertrich enthused. “You have to make the first call very important to set the standard. You allow up to this point, but not more. It’s also important to have good communication with the players. Sometimes you don’t even need to call penalties, just warn them. They like that, and they listen, which is good.”
The North Americans are bigger and faster than Europeans, and they are raised playing a more physical game. This has a significant impact on play.
“When those teams play, you can’t give body contact as a penalty because they do it all game,” Hertrich explained. “They make a check but continue to skate. With the European teams, they may make contact but then do something illegal. They North Americans are very strong. You just have to make sure they don’t go over that level you establish. They play the puck first but use their body, and they both do, which is fine by IIHF standards.”
When Hertrich started at the top level, she worked in a system with one referee and two linesmen, but in 2014, the IIHF adopted the men’s format and went with two referees for women’s games. This had an impact on Hertrich, but she has adapted.
“We have a pre-game talk,” she explains of how she and her refereeing partner handle the Canada-U.S. games in particular. “It’s very important because you want to be consistent. But I know all the refs in the top pool, so it’s easy for us to discuss these issues before the game. So we say body contact is not a penalty with these two teams, and we talk on the ice to make sure everything is going smoothly or if we have to make some adjustments. But that first penalty sets that level, so we have to be careful.”
Despite her reputation and experience, there is one notable omission from Hertrich’s resume—Olympic gold.
“Of course, my dream is the gold-medal game at the Olympics. I’m just like the players—their goal is the Olympic final, and that’s the same for me, too.”
At 41, Hertrich is in her prime. Fit and athletic, she still has time to fulfill her dream, in PyeongChang or even Beijing.
“When I don’t feel that special sense of wanting to try to be the best and wanting to be on the ice, then I know it’s time to stop,” she summarized. “I don’t know when it is, but right now I’m having a great time. I love being part of the game, being on the ice. It’s fun, so why stop when I don’t have to?”