Whistle Talk

The NHLOA, in conjunction with the NHL, founded a mentorship program geared towards a group of 48 elite female officials throughout North America.


Article written by Adam Kirshenblatt

Samantha Hiller just wants to be able to skate.

The native of Boulder, Colorado is a level four official with USA Hockey working in Illinois. She had broken her leg as part of her day job as a firefighter in May and combined with shutdowns due to COVID 19, she has gone to great lengths just to get some game action.

“The first game I was offered was four and a half hours away,” said the 28-year-old official. “My knee feels best when I’m skating so I’ll do anything I can do to get games- I’ll drive four hours it’s fine.”

Michelle Stapleton, experienced similar difficult delays north of the border in Regina, Saskatchewan. After delays to the start of her season, she was able to notch six weeks of hockey action under her belt from October to November.

But then everything shut down again.

“It has really made us miss hockey and our real lives,” said the 30-year-old level five referee with Hockey Canada. “Spending time at the rink and being involved in games, it’s definitely something we’re all missing over here.”

Shutdowns have affected all levels of hockey from the NHL to recreational leagues. In the NHL’s case, teams played their playoffs in hub zones established in Toronto, Ontario and Edmonton, Alberta after being shut down for slightly less than five months.

After the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of September, the NHL season did not launch its 2020-21 campaign until the beginning of January.

During this off-season, the NHL Officials Association (NHLOA), in conjunction with the NHL, founded a mentorship program, geared towards a group of 48 elite female officials throughout North America.

Using virtual platforms, NHL officials held four sessions creating a dialogue on the tricks of their trade. Some of the topics they discussed involved communication with game participants, pregame preparation, dealing with adversity, and working as a team.

“We thought it would be a nice idea meeting with some people who officiate outside of our level,” the 20-year veteran referee Wes McCauley explained. “And thought it would be a great experience for all of us.”

The meetings were a breath of fresh air for the participants. It afforded them an opportunity to talk not only with the professionals, but with each other while picking the brains of the best in the business.

“It was pretty cool to see how other people deal with certain situations where you’re not going to deal with the situation the same or have the same approach,” said Stapleton. “I’ve always liked taking different tools from everyone else’s toolbox to create my own box of communication tools.”

For Hiller, one of the main takeaways from the conversations was the mental aspect of the game. This could be being mentally prepared prior to the game, making sure the officiating crews are all on the same page, or tips to remain focused and not let the game spiral.

“One of the things we talked about was self-talk,” said Hiller. “They were able to talk about things they do when something isn’t going right and to be able to center themselves to get back in the game.”

“It’s such a mental thing for when you know something is derailing and to be able to pull it back on and ‘Okay we’ve got this, everything’s going to be ok’. You have to have your own positive self-talk because you’re always going to hear the negative stuff.”

As well as going through the different topics, the mentorship program featured an interactive aspect where they would show video of calls that could be open to interpretation. This exercise gave the participants a chance to give their perspective.

“It was pretty neat to get their feedback on how they thought how we could’ve handled the situation better,” explained McCauley. “They were pretty positive too so that was good to hear, they didn’t go right to the negative part of it.”

For Hiller, this aspect was important as it showed that even the world’s best make mistakes.

“When we watch these guys work professional games and think about their careers, we see such a perfectionist group of people who always want to make the right call and do the right thing,” said Hiller. “But then we saw moments where they didn’t do the right thing or make the right call and we got the sense that they’re human too.”

Officials Steve Barton and McCauley participated in all sessions while Kelly Sutherland, Tom Chmielewski, Ryan Daisy, Brandon Gawryletz and retired official and current officiating manager, Mike Leggo also participated.

For these officials, it was a chance for them to mentor, and an opportunity for them to learn about their games and the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.

“In a lot of ways, they have it tougher than we do,” said Barton, an NHL linesman for 21 years. “They’re working men’s and women’s hockey, and they’re working internationally. They have different rule books, so they have to adjust with all those various elements that come into their job.”

“We have that constant NHL standard while they’re travelling across the world to do games, going into different leagues.”

The NHLOA is continuing the conversation throughout the 2020-21 season, albeit more informally, with Whistle Talk sessions aimed to encourage more dialogue.

“It’s our goal to keep this moving forward,” McCauley said. “We’re trying to have a fire side type of chat every little bit just to talk about officiating and what’s going on in the officiating world in all levels of hockey.”

This isn’t the first time the NHLOA and the NHL have worked with female officials of the highest levels. Katie Guay, Kirsten Welsh, Kelly Cooke, and Kendall Hanley all took part in different NHL rookie tournaments prior to the start of the 2019-20 season.

In addition, 22 female officials have taken part in the Exposure Combine and hope to grow that number in future years.

“As we’ve seen with the women’s game coming further and further along,” Barton said. “It’s only a matter of time before we have officials in the NHL that are female.”