Guay a trailblazer in stripes

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

In honor of Women’s History Month, this week is featuring a multi-part series spotlighting women across the AHL.

📝 by Patrick Williams

Katie Guay had built an extensive hockey resume long before she ever stepped on AHL ice last season.

The native of Westfield, Mass., had been around the world, in multiple leagues, and in roles as a player, coach and official.

After four seasons at Brown University — “I was a bit of a grinder on the ice,” Guay said with a laugh. “I took my fair share of penalties but knew when I was guilty.” — a viable option to continue playing at a high level did not really exist. But Guay’s hunger to stay firmly in the sport led her to seek out other avenues.

“I really missed being around the rink,” said Guay, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in business economics and psychology. “I never really saw officiating as a path I would pursue or be interested in. It really was just the love for the game that when it came to an end, I wanted to find another way to stay involved.”

Julie Piacentini, an official who worked the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, caught Guay’s ear, explained officiating’s possibilities, and took on a mentorship role for her.

Guay soon built a name for herself refereeing women’s hockey at the Division I college level and was invited to her first international tournament in 2010. In 2014 she and Erin Blair became the first female referees to work a game in the Southern Professional Hockey League. Later she duplicated that feat in D-I men’s hockey. On the international stage, she became a frequent presence at IIHF tournaments around the world.

In 2018, Guay was selected to officiate at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. It was a goal she had set for herself when she began officiating, but really it could be traced back to 1998 when she was in high school and watched the United States team take the gold medal at the first Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Nagano, Japan.

Guay had played on the United States under-22 women’s team while at Brown, but a spot on the national team never came. Officiating provided another road to the Olympic stage.

“When I put on the stripes and found a mentor who had been there,” Guay said, “I really just tried to be a sponge and learn everything and try to get there on my own. [The Olympics were] my ultimate goal, and I really thought that I had reached it.

“At the time I really didn’t think men’s pro hockey was a possibility.”

Guay did all of that, it should be noted, while working in the 9-to-5 world and also coaching. She worked corporate jobs, spent eight years on the staff at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., and was the director of philanthropy for the USA Hockey Foundation.

“For the longest time, I never took a vacation day without bringing my ref’s bag with me, and so all my vacation time went to reffing,” Guay recounted. “I love being able to travel the globe and work with officials from across the world, and so I loved it.”

By 2019, the National Hockey League had taken notice. She was accepted to attend the NHL Officiating Combine that summer and went on to work at one of the NHL’s top prospect tournaments, hosted that year by the Anaheim Ducks.

“After the combine is when the conversation happened about working in the American Hockey League,” Guay said.

Before last season, the AHL hired 10 female on-ice officials, Guay included. She became the first of the group to work an AHL game when she handled a match-up between Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 16, 2021.

“For me I was just trying to think of it as any other hockey game,” Guay said. “As the day got closer, I heard from a lot of NHL and AHL officials reaching out, wishing me luck, and sending me congrats. And then there were a lot of people inside that building that day who came into the locker room pre-game, so certainly it was a little bit different than a typical game. There were a lot more eyes watching, and so that certainly elevated the pressure a little bit.”

But the atypical quickly did become the same as “any other hockey game.”

“Once that first puck went down,” Guay said of that opening face-off between Cal O’Reilly and Radim Zohorna, “I was able to take a deep breath and then continue on my way.”

Officiating has become the closest thing to playing for Guay all these years later.

“Being part of it,” Guay said, “being on the ice, being on the goal line when there’s a lot of action in front, it’s fun. I think that adrenaline flow is very similar to that of a player.”

Officiating also brings a much different grind. There is no team bus going from one city to the next. No one to handle all of those little issues that arise during a hectic weekend. Officials make their way from city to the next, one airport and one highway at a time.

“I think that’s when the love for the game certainly shines through, on those long, solo car rides,” Guay reasons. “It makes you appreciate the times you get to travel with your partner and the crew a little bit more. But it’s fun to see new barns, be able to travel and see different arenas, and get out there and get into some high-level hockey games.

“I always say that I think the officials have the most amount of passion for the game. We’re out there, grinding it out… There’s a lot you’re doing on your own. There’s the offseason training, the physical training to make sure you’re able to keep up with play.

“It’s up to us to do it. We don’t have a coach that’s standing over us every game, and there’s just so much more self-reflection and a commitment that I think as an individual you need to have versus being part of that team.”

So officiating is a challenging path to some of the highest levels of the game, but it is a viable one. And that includes for women.

“I think there are so many female officials that came before me that had the ability, and the time wasn’t right,” Guay said. “I feel really fortunate that here I am at the peak of my game, and the timing is right. I think with the American Hockey League having female officials, it’s really opening eyes to other men’s leagues to follow suit. To be able to be part of that is certainly an honor, and I feel like I’m representing so many officials that came before me.

“I’m hoping to open up the eyes of younger officials that now realize that there are these opportunities. I give the AHL so much credit for really taking a lead on this.”