MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — The Ontario Hockey League has garnered a solid reputation as a prime precursor for the careers of a plethora of future NHLers from Connor McDavid to John Tavares to Patrick Kane, to name just three. However, since they broke away from the Ontario Hockey Association to form their own league in 1980, the OHL has never had a female referee or linesperson. That all changed on Thursday, Sept. 30.
That evening, Kirsten Welsh participated in an OHL preseason game between the Guelph Storm and the host Mississauga Steelheads at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, officially making history and breaking down a significant barrier.
OHL Commissioner David Branch auspiciously kicked the festivities off
“On behalf of the OHL and its member teams, I’d like to extend a warm welcome and congratulate Kirsten Welsh on the accomplishment of joining the OHL Officiating team,” Commissioner Branch said on Thursday. “Kirsten has demonstrated an ability to officiate the game at a high level and we’re excited to see her break barriers as she continues her development as a linesperson in the OHL.”
As for the woman of the hour, she was understandably thrilled.
“This is an incredible opportunity and I can’t really put into words what it feels like to be working in the Ontario Hockey League,” Welsh beamed during the OHL’s announcement before Thursday’s game. “Being an advocate and having this opportunity, I just feel so lucky.”
While she was rightfully happy about her own achievement, the 24-year-old’s excitement for the future and what her opportunity means for more girls was palpable to say the least.
“It’s an incredible process to be a part of,” Welsh added. “I’m so lucky I can be a part of something that is going to affect generations of little girls.”
It is worth noting that Welsh carries with her a resume that looks like that of a wily veteran.
Prior to adding the OHL to her resume, Welsh worked as a linesperson in NCAA Division III, the Pennsylvania-based NAPHL, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, and the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League. She even officiated the Buffalo Sabres’ preseason prospects tournament in 2019. The opportunity made Welsh just the fourth woman to officiate an NHL game.
A native of Blackstock, Ontario, Welsh grew up playing the game, taking her talents to the Steel City, Pittsburgh, where she attended Robert Morris University from 2015-2019.
During her career at RMU, Welsh served as captain for the school’s women’s hockey team, collecting 91 points in 128 regular-season games.
As for the historic game itself, Welsh could not have picked a better contest.
The Storm and Steelheads went back and forth all night long, pushing the game to a shootout.
Mississauga’s rookie center, Luca DelBelBelluz, opened the scoring 14:14 into the first period. Guelph then tied just over three minutes later courtesy of Matthew Papais before both clubs traded goals again.
With just 92 seconds to go in the second period, left-winger James Hardie, who assisted on the second Steelheads goal, put Mississauga in the lead for the third time. The Storm, however, got off to a solid start in the third, tying just 33 seconds into the frame before Danny Zhilkin potted his fourth of the preseason at the 2:16 mark to give the visitors their first lead of the contest.
At the 12:41 mark, however, Zak Lavoie answered for the Steelheads, potting his fourth of the preseason to knot the game up yet again.
After a scoreless overtime, this game went to a shootout.
Both teams exchanged goals early on but the road team prevailed as Matthew Poitras won the game for the Storm.
Overall, it was a very entertaining contest on Thursday but of course, the story was less about the end result and more about the historical aspect.
Kirsten Welsh added a new chapter to the OHL’s long, storied history and was successful in her debut, taking part in an evenly matched contest.
But, Welsh’s opportunity to officiate on OHL did not end on Thursday.
The 24-year-old was back in action on Friday in Oshawa where the hometown Generals took on the Windsor Spitfires. Like Thursday’s contest, Friday’s game ended in a 5-4 count — in favour of Oshawa — in another back-and-forth affair.
Of course, while these two games marked wonderful — not to mention historic — opportunities for Welsh, do not expect this to be the end of the line for the Robert Morris alum as she will be getting regular assignments during the OHL regular season. When, where, and how many remains to be seen but regardless, do keep a keen eye out for Welsh in 2021-22.
Making history may have been exhilarating for the Blackstock, Ont., native, but moving forward, Welsh is simply part of the OHL’s officiating family — an honour very well-earned.
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