Apparently nobody told the SPHL how North American professional sports operate. There are the men’s leagues, which receive funding and national attention, and then there are the women’s leagues, which (with the arguable exceptions of tennis and basketball) are largely ignored except during Olympic Years.
The SPHL is taking a different route, first contracting Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados to the Columbus Cottonmouths and now debuting Erin Blair and Katie Guay, the first female referees to officiate a professional game in North America since 1995, when Heather McDaniel broke into the Central Hockey League and the West Coast Hockey League.
McDaniel, who worked for several years in the minor leagues, acknowledged to ESPNW in a 2011 article that there were certain aspects of officiating a men’s game that could make it difficult for a woman—but those were the same issues that men struggled with, too. From ESPNW:
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.
Blair and Guay will officiate the matchup between the Columbus Cottonmouths and the Fayetteville FireAntz as part of the Cottonmouths’ Girl Scout Night. Both referees come with impressive international resumes; Blair has been an official for 14 years and worked for more than a decade officiating games for the IIHF. The game will be a reunion of sorts for Blair and Szabados, as Blair was one of six referees on the ice for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Guay won MVP at Brown University, where she played four seasons, and was a member of the women’s U22 National Hockey Team. Her current position sees her officiating both men’s and women’s hockey in Hockey East and the ECAC.
“We are extremely excited to be allowed the opportunity to showcase two of the top female referees in the world,” said SPHL Director of Officiating Mark Faucette in the SPHL press release. “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.”
Blair, who was also featured in ESPNW’s feature, has had her eye on the men’s leagues for a while now. As she told Sarah Spain in 2011, “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.”
Maybe not as much as she thought.