Welsh making big strides to reach NHL

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

📝 by Patrick Williams

Kirsten Welsh quickly became an obvious candidate for the National Hockey League’s officiating Exposure Combine back in the summer of 2019.

Having spent four years as a mobile defender with at Robert Morris University, Welsh’s on-ice abilities fit the criteria required to officiate at the pro level. And having captained the Colonials in her final season, she also brought the temperament, problem-solving skills and demeanor that handling the lines demands.

A native of Blackstock, Ont., Welsh generated 91 points in 128 contests across those four years at Robert Morris, located just outside Pittsburgh. She also piled up a bundle of awards, including being named the College Hockey America conference’s top defender in 2017-18.

More importantly for moving into officiating, Welsh can skate. Speed and mobility are prerequisites for on-ice officials in today’s transition-based game. Can’t skate, can’t officiate.

Welsh ticked each box that one could look for from a prospective linesperson. So following that NHL combine, Welsh joined referees Kelly Cooke and Katie Guay along with fellow linesperson Kendall Hanley to work a three-on-three women’s event during the 2020 NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis. She went to Buffalo to official an NHL prospects tournament in 2021. She worked Division I women’s games, Division III men’s games and minor hockey to accumulate additional experience.

And when the AHL announced the hiring of its first female on-ice officials before the 2021-22 season, Welsh was one of three linespeople (plus seven referees) who made the cut.

“You have to be able to keep up with the fastest players in the world,” Welsh said. “It’s an imperative part of the game. We have to be equal in terms of the physical side of the game. If you’re going to be out there, you have to keep up.”

In recent years, the NHL and AHL have sought out former players to make the move into officiating. Along with elite skating abilities, those ex-players also possess hockey IQ and a sense for the game. That can translate well to officiating and the need to understand positioning and to anticipate game flow.

But even with Welsh’s superb skating ability — the elite speed and edgework that she built through years of training — the transition from playing still necessitated changes.

“The biggest thing is the energy level you use,” Welsh said of the move to officiating. Managing that energy becomes a matter of endurance, rather than putting one’s body through the all-out 45-second shift that a player must do.

And beyond that, Welsh had to make the jump from playing at the NCAA level to officiating in the second-best league in the world. That is a jump for college players who come into the AHL, and it is the same for an official.

On Nov. 13, 2021, Welsh became the first female linesperson ever to work an AHL game, a tilt between the Bridgeport Islanders and Belleville Senators at CAA Arena. The debut came close to her Ontario home, but still there were nerves.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking, honestly,” Welsh said of the days leading up to that game.

Fortunately, she shared a car ride with experienced referee Dave Lewis.

“It was nice to have him to bounce thoughts and ideas off for the first game, just getting a better idea of what to expect,” she said. “Just nice to talk to somebody tenured about it.”

Now Welsh shares the ice with first-round NHL draft picks, up-and-coming future stars and veteran mentors. Last week in Toronto, she worked a pair of Marlies games; the Marlies lineup included two-time Stanley Cup champion Kyle Clifford, someone who has played 753 games in the NHL.

“You see players like that, and it’s very humbling,” Welsh chuckled.

Player management matters, especially in a league in which players battle nightly for NHL jobs. That means learning about tendencies, personalities, whatever might settle a tense situation in the face-off circle or a net-front scrum after the whistle.

When Welsh, whose full-time job is in sales, gets into town, she tries to sit down for lunch with her fellow officials for that night’s game. They bond and swap stories, and when 5 p.m. arrives, it’s time for a coffee, the walk to the rink, and to begin preparing to hit the ice at 7:00.

“That’s what your homework is,” Welsh said. “That adds a human element there to getting their attention. The little things go such a long way.

“You want to try and be the best team out there, and you have to work with your partners. You four out there are a team.”

Photo: Joshua Bessex/NHLI via Getty Images

Of course, the players have done their own homework on the officiating crew. On-ice interaction between player and official quickly becomes a game within the game. Any edge, even a small one, matters, and it’s Welsh’s job to put a stop to that.

“It’s so funny,” Welsh laughs. “They’ll try to get into your head. They don’t want to be kicked out of the face-off. But then as you make a call that’s not in their favor, it’s like a light switch has turned… ‘Okay, game on!’

“Adapt as you move forward,” she continued. “That’s all I’m doing. It’s all experience, and the longer you’re in the league, the better you have to deal with that kind of thing. Luckily I have the mentors that I have who have dealt with that and kind of help me navigate through those situations in particular. But it’s all a learning curve for everyone.”

Two of those mentors have been Caleb Apperson, an AHL graduate now working full-time in the NHL, and Ryan Jackson. Both linespeople helped to guide Welsh through her first AHL season. Just like players and coaches, young officials like the 26-year-old Welsh are in the AHL to learn the job and position themselves for later NHL opportunities. Demeanor. Body language. Making a call with confidence. Defusing tensions. Owning up to a mistake.

Much more goes into the job than simply knowing the rulebook inside-out.

“I’m coming up through the ranks, and there are things that I don’t know yet just simply because of a lack of experience,” Welsh said. “These guys, whenever I work with them, I just try and learn as much as I possibly can, because they’re just such good role models. It’s the attitude… It’s talking to your teammates before making a call and including them. Talking in between periods. It’s all those things that make you a good teammate.”

Take a missed call. Any official can relate to that. This is, after all, a game played at top speed and requiring split-second decisions. Humility counts with players and coaches. Players mishandle pucks and turn them over. Coaches make decisions they look back on later and would like to change. Mistakes are relatable in this sport.

“You’re being vulnerable,” Welsh said of admitting an error. “It goes a long way. It builds a lot of credibility, because they know, they can see that you’re trying and want to do well. Everyone’s just trying to do their job out there. Obviously as you make those mistakes, they’re easier to not make [in the future]. But they’ll happen, and it’s all about how you react.

As Welsh makes her way through the AHL, she is building that credibility each night. She has worked 35 games in 16 different cities this season, impressive totals that are indicative of her standing as a prospective hire for the NHL.

“It’s crazy to look back and think about my mindset going into a game versus what it is now,” Welsh said. “I’ve learned so much in a short period of time, and I feel so lucky for that. Being able to work with the people that I have worked with has just been such an amazing experience.”

Welsh took a chance, and it is paying off now. Before Robert Morris associate head coach Logan Bittle pointed her toward officiating, it had never seemed like it would be her career path.

“That’s a message that I do want to convey to little girls everywhere and women in sport in general,” Welsh stressed. “Don’t be afraid to jump on new opportunities and maybe things that you haven’t tried before.

“Go in with both feet if you have an opportunity that presents itself. It was definitely nerve-wracking at first, and I didn’t want to do it. But I forced myself through adversity and knew that this was a whole new world I was getting into. I had the support from my husband and support from [Bittle].

“It was a decision that I didn’t think would lead me this far, and I’m so, so happy that I took it. I hope that I can inspire other women to take on new opportunities, because you never know.”