Kendall Hanley (second from the left) referees an AHL game this season. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Admirals
Kendall Hanley has traveled the world without ever leaving home.
That’s because home for Hanley is anywhere there is a sheet of ice and enough skaters to roster a pair of competing teams. She’s a hockey official, a journey that began with a love for the game she discovered in her youth. The sport is her passion, and she has left a lifelong trail of offerings and sacrifices to the game she loves.
“I love the rink,” said Hanley, the former director and coach for the Colorado Select Girls Hockey Association. “The passion, the energy. You can go to the rink and everything else in your life just kind of falls away for a couple of hours. (Hockey) is just such an incredible game. You’re always learning something each time out that you didn’t know before.”
Chasing that hockey high has never been easy. It’s a second full-time job that takes its toll on family, friends and primary employer. Hanley knows her hockey dreams and goals come at a cost she could not pay without the support of those closest to her.
It’s hard. But it’s hockey, and Hanley would give almost anything to the game she says has given so much to her.
Still, hockey withholds from Hanley some of its greatest rewards at the highest levels. Not just from Hanley. From women. Opportunities for women to engage with the sport at levels beyond college are rare. Hockey has long operated with a glass ceiling.
But Hanley now finds herself among a group of women whose efforts could significantly raise that ceiling. She, along with nine other women, are rostered officials for the 2021-22 season in the American Hockey League, the top developmental league for the National Hockey League. Katie Guay, on Oct. 16, 2021, became the first woman to referee an AHL game when Lehigh Valley played at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Hanley’s appointment, along with Guay, Samantha Hiller, Kelly Cooke, Elizabeth Mantha, Amanda Tassani, Laura White, Jacqueline Zee-Howard, Alexandra Clarke and Kirsten Welsh, to the AHL officiating ranks marks a milestone change. Hanley, Clarke and Welsh are linespeople (Hanley will sometimes still call herself a “linesman”) while the others are referees. Laura Schmidlein, a linesperson, became the first woman to officiate in an East Coast Hockey League game on Dec. 13, 2021, and will work more games this season along with Welsh.
Until now, only three women had officiated in a men’s professional hockey league. Guay and Erin Blair officiated a Southern Professional Hockey League game in 2014. Heather McDaniel officiated in the Central Hockey League and West Coast Hockey League from 1995-99.
Hanley’s greatest officiating ambition had been to earn a selection by the International Ice Hockey Federation to work a Winter Olympics. She achieved that goal on Jan. 7 when the IIHF announced that Hanley and Cooke were chosen as officials for the 2022 Winter Games this February in Beijing.
But her addition to the AHL lineup caused her to rethink and reframe her officiating goals.
“It led me to reset new challenges and new goals,” Hanley said. “Up until this year, (working in men’s professional hockey) was never an opportunity.”
Could Hanley be among the first to officiate in the NHL? “That would be the hope and the goal,” said AHL President and CEO Scott Howson. “But it’s one step at a time. They have to do the work and prove themselves here. We hope that some will be able to establish themselves” as NHL-quality officials.
The NHL wouldn’t be the first high-profile male professional sports league in North America to employ female officials. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner began officiating in the National Basketball Association in 1997. Sarah Thomas became the National Football League’s first full-time female official in 2015.
Major League Baseball has never had a female official, although Bernice Gera went to the courts to win the right to umpire and appeared in a New York-Penn League (Class A) game in 1972. Her professional career lasted the first game of a scheduled doubleheader. She cited verbal abuse and other officials’ refusal to work with her as reasons for leaving umpiring.
But the NHL has opened the door to female officials and is working in conjunction with the AHL to train and evaluate them. “Katie Guay did the Olympics, and she told me she thought that was it (the pinnacle of her officiating opportunities),” Howson said. “But now she’s got something else.”
Hanley was uncertain about her future after playing four years of Division III hockey from 2005-09, two as a defenseman at Elmira College in New York and two as a forward at SUNY-Oswego. She earned a degree in zoology and was working an internship in Dallas when she reconnected with the game she loves.
Hanley, born in Raleigh, N.C., and a three-sport standout at Williston-Northampton Prep School in Easthampton, Mass., joined an adult hockey league in the Dallas area. A teammate invited her to officiate adult league games and she recognized a world of new opportunities to stay involved with hockey.
She eventually took a full-time job as a director of hockey and coach for a youth and adult program in Allen, Texas. She continued to work on her officiating for the three years she spent there. Hanley moved to Littleton, Colo., to take a job as director and coach with the Colorado Select Girls Hockey Association and stayed in that position for two seasons before moving to Chicago in the summer of 2016.
It was in Littleton, where Hanley discovered she would have to make a choice to realize her goals. She could either coach the game or officiate the game. “My goals on the officiating side and my goals on the coaching side were starting to come to a head,” she said. “I realized that the coaching and working with kids is always going to be there; but the officiating side isn’t always going to be there.”
And so she dived head-first into an officiating track. She has earned plenty of success, and has worked internationally with leagues including the IIHF, USA Hockey, United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League, Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, Western Collegiate Hockey Association and others. Hanley, along with Guay, Cooke and Welsh, worked NHL rookie tournaments in 2019 and took part in the 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend in St. Louis when they officiated the NHL Elite 3-on-3 Showcase. And she was awarded the 2020-21 Ben Allison Award, for dedication as an official and stellar representation of USA Hockey, by the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program.
Hanley is grateful for what she considers a wide range of options. She said she is particularly grateful for the women who came before her to create those options. “Every time I get on the ice,” she said, “I think of the people who helped me get there.”
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