The Southern Professional Hockey League’s Columbus Cottonmouths are no strangers when it comes to supporting women in hockey.  The club, owned by Ms. Wanda Amos, was the first SPHL team to have a woman on their roster when goaltender Shannon Szabados suited up last season.  On Friday, November 21, the team will host the first female officials in the SPHL for their Hockey and Heels/Girl Scout Night.

Referees Erin Blair and Katie Guay will take to the ice to officiate Friday night’s game between the Columbus Cottonmouths and the Fayetteville FireAntz. Both referees bring plenty of experience into the game.

Referees Erin Blair and Katie Guay make their SPHL debuts

Referees Erin Blair and Katie Guay make their SPHL debuts

Blair has been officiating for 14 years, ten of those internationally with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Blair most recently worked the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.   She’s also officiated the 2011 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2009 IIHF Under-18 World Championship, where she oversaw the Gold Medal game between the US and Canada.

Guay currently officiates women’s college hockey in Hockey East and the ECAC.  Internationally, she worked the 2014 IIHF Under-18 World Championship. She’s been selected to referee the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Malmo, Sweden.

“Erin and Katie are two highly capable and qualified officials that I know will represent the entire officiating community to the highest level,” said USA Hockey’s Matt Leaf.

ECAC Director of Officiating Paul Stewart gave Guay his vote of confidence, saying, “Katie is a very solid official. She has both my confidence and my best wishes as she helps break the glass ceiling in officiating. Katie can skate, has played the game and is recognized by both the ECAC and the IIHF as a more than competent referee.  I wish I was still on the ice. I would love to work games with her. She’s good.”

The SPHL’s First Female Referees

The event came together as the Cottonmouths looked to expand what was initially a ‘Hockey and Heels’ night to include the Girl Scouts, and to focus not just on female fans but on women involved in hockey as well.  SPHL Director of Officiating Mark Faucette worked with USA Hockey to bring in two of their top female officials for the game.

“We are extremely excited to be allowed the opportunity to showcase two of the top female referees in the world,” said Faucette. “Shannon Szabados broke the barrier for female players in the SPHL last season, and we are confident that Erin and Katie can do the same for female officials.”

Scouting the Refs spoke with the two officials prior to their professional hockey debuts.

Referee Katie Guay

Referee Katie Guay

“I definitely wasn’t expecting this one,” said Guay, of getting the call to work her first professional men’s game. “It’s a shock, but it’s great. I’m excited.”

Blair was equally enthusiastic. “I’m obviously going to jump on an opportunity like that,” she said. “I’m more than happy to do it.”

On-Ice Differences

Neither Blair nor Guay have officiated men’s hockey above a club or high school level. That’s not a concern, though, as both bring plenty of experience to the rink.   The biggest challenge may be in mastering the differences between collegiate and international rulebooks compared with that of the Southern Pro League.

“There are some rule differences from what im used to working,” said Blair. “This past week and a half, I’ve really been focusing on trying to make sure I’m top-notch on all of the rules and 100% accurate. It’s a mental game.  It’s very much focus and that kind of stuff.  Making sure I’m mentally prepared for what could happen on the ice.”

One of those things that could happen?  Fights.

“I’ve seen some fights in the men’s hockey that I’ve done, but not in the women’s game,” said Blair. “The IIHF frowns upon fighting very seriously so, especially in international competition, I haven’t seen it.  But I’ve had my fair share of boys’ hockey and boys will be boys, right?”

“I don’t really see many gloves dropping in my games,” said Guay, “so that’ll be a bit of an eye opener if that were to happen.  Women’s hockey is getting more physical. Obviously, there’s no full-on body checking allowed in the game but there’s plenty of body contact along the boards. It’s gotten more physical over the years so there definitely is a difference and there will be a difference tomorrow night.  Once I get through the first couple minutes, it’ll be fine.  Once the puck drops and we see the pace of the game out there at eye level — it’ll take a few seconds to adjust. Hopefully I’ll be able to adjust very quickly.”

Hockey and Heels/Girl Scout Night

This is the first Hockey and Heels Night for the Columbus Cottonmouths.  Aside from referees Erin Blair and Katie Guay, it also features Cottonmouths goaltender Shannon Szabados – the first woman to play in the SPHL.  Szabados will be starting in net for Columbus, with hopes of earning her first professional victory.  At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Blair was in stripes while Szabados was tending goal for Team Canada.  The two will be back out on the ice together tonight.

Columbus Cottonmouths goaltender Shannon Szabados

Columbus Cottonmouths goaltender Shannon Szabados

“[Having Szabados start in goal is] awesome,” said Blair. “I think it’s great that she’s playing for the league and for the team. I think the overall environment of this game is going to be great for any girl or female in the building. It’s really cool that [Szabados also] gets the opportunity to play. I think we have that little bit of camaraderie and that respect for each other to be able to be out there together.”

The idea of expanding Hockey and Heels night to include the referees came from Cottonmouths’ owner Wanda Amos. “With Shannon [Szabados] here, she wanted to enhance the whole night,” said Cottonmouths GM and head coach Jerome Bechard. “I think that it empowers women and sends a message to women young and old that they can compete with men in all roles of life, [including] sports and in the business world.”

“I was actually a Girl Scout back in the day. I sold my fair share of cookies,” said Guay. “I think any time you can open kids’ eyes to new experiences, it’s huge for their development in setting their goals, and seeing what’s possible. Being out there in front of a fan base of young girls will be a huge for the game. It would be awesome if us being on the ice would encourage a few girls to think about playing hockey.”

“I really appreciate the effort and thought that’s being put into this game,” Blair added. “It’s unbelievable. I’m a teacher. I go to work every day. For my kids to be able to say, ‘I’m going to watch you on the internet during your game’ is awesome.  They’re so excited to see something like that. It’s outstanding. I’m extremely excited about it.”

“I have to thank the SPHL along with the Cottonmouths,” said Guay. “I know it’s a huge step for them to take having females out there. The Cottonmouths already have Szabados, so clearly they’re not afraid to put females out there which is definitely awesome for us.  As officials, we’re always trying to get to that next level be assigned the best games that are out there. To be able to this, it’ll be a lot of fun.”

Female Referees in the NHL

The pinnacle of success for a female hockey official is to work the Olympics.  Blair represented the US in 2014. Guay hopes to be slected for PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018.  With Blar and Guay working in the SPHL, the hope is that more opportunities will open up for female officials in North American professional hockey.  Does that mean we’ll eventually see a female referee in the NHL?

Referee Erin Blair

Referee Erin Blair

“I believe that it’s possible,” said Blair. “I believe there are women out there that are perfectly capable of doing it. From a referee standpoint, it would be easier to see that in the future. As far as linesmen go, I think the players are so big and so strong that women as linesmen would be a difficult place to be in the NHL, but I do think that there are women officials that are perfectly capable of working men’s hockey at the highest level.”

Guay agreed.  “I think this is a step in that direction,” she said. “Getting more women involved in men’s hockey at all levels, starting with youth, then high school, then getting to the college level and then obviously getting into the pros and working their way up.  I definitely wouldn’t rule it out.”

Blair and Guay are not the first female officials to referee a men’s hockey game in North America. That distinction goes to Heather McDaniel, who worked a few seasons in the Central Hockey League beginning in 1995.

It’s been over 15 years a women officiated a professional game in North America when referee Heather McDaniel worked  a few seasons in the Central Hockey League. There have nbeen none since. It’s great to see female officials back out on the ice working professional hockey.  Hopefully, this will continue.  The more opportunities, the better the officials – both men and women – can become.

Our thanks to the SPHL and the Columbus Cottonmouths for giving referees Erin Blair and Katie Guay this opportunity.  It’s a night they, along with female fans and players, won’t soon forget.

To check out the action, you can watch tonight’s SPHL game
between the Cottonmouths and FireAntz online
via SPHL Live.