Michelle Stapleton is one of seven in the country with the title. Men have been at that echelon for years, but she is one of an elite team of women who will pave the way for others.
Becoming a Level V official with Hockey Canada wasn’t in Stapleton’s plans as a young girl. She grew up learning to dance across the ice on figure skates. The closest she ever got to hockey as a child was while sitting in the bleachers. While the other kids buzzed around the rink, Stapleton sat in the stands -- at the insistence of her parents -- watching every move of her brother, Jeff, on the ice.
“I never even played hockey until I was 21,” laughed the 25-year-old Stapleton, who lives in Saskatoon, Sask.
Stapleton grew up in Moose Jaw, Sask., which is a hotbed of hockey in Saskatchewan. It’s a place where NHL legends like Theoren Fleury, Chris Cheilos and Ryan Smyth played some of their junior years. It’s where the architecturally notorious “Crushed Can” was the weekend home to many kids. New rinks, old rinks, bantam leagues, beer leagues – like many Western Canadian towns and cities, Moose Jaw has it all.
Despite the countless hours spent at the rink, it wasn’t until her brother started officiating hockey games as a teenager that Stapleton swapped her white skates for black ones.
A figure skate is designed to facilitate delicate curves and deep jumps; a hockey skate is made for speed and fast footwork.
Along with the change in footwear, Stapleton had to learn a whole new set of skills when she switched to officiating.
Like any great hockey player wishing to make the NHL, an official must also pay their dues. Stapleton needed to work her way through all the different levels of hockey, from bantam leagues to midget AAA.
Her skating skills were “enough to get by,” but she knew she needed to do more. She also needed to learn the specific language of the game. Even though she completed a degree in civil engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, Stapleton admitted she was never as nervous for a test as she was for the Hockey Canada’s elite female Level V officiating exam.
“I think I was more worried about (this exam) because there were only five of us there,” she said. “You don’t want to be the one person to fail the exam.
“And you have to get 90 per cent too. So, you get 89 per cent, that’s technically a fail. So, a little bit more pressure on them than engineering finals,” she said.
Also from Moose Jaw is the Western Hockey League’s director of officiating, Kevin Muench.
When asked about officiating testing, he said, “The way I approach it with our staff, they are just expected to know the rules. And I want them to know the rules 100 per cent, because errors in controllable situations are unacceptable.”
Writing the test well under the 90-minute time limit, Stapleton passed with 97 per cent. She had incorrect answers to three questions, one of which she figured out months later.
“It was an obscure question like a coach head-butting a player of the opposing team,” she remembers.
“Like when is that going to happen, right? Hopefully that never happens to you, but now I know the rule because I got it wrong and figured it out.”
Despite never learning how to play the game, Stapleton took to the sport like a natural.
“I think my parents were maybe a little bit nervous when I was starting out,” said Stapleton.
“But I think when they saw me excelling at it, their comfort level definitely got a lot better.”
The challenge so far hasn’t been knowing the calls by heart or knowing when to hand out penalties – it has been her gender.
“It’s always tough for a female to come into the guys’ world,” she said. “Whether it’s the players or other officials, I know sometimes they maybe think we aren’t capable or qualified or physically qualified to be doing some of the levels.”
For the WHL, Muench said it comes down to the capability of an official – male or female.
“It’s all about judgment. You’ve got to be able to make the right decisions at a high-paced game,” he said, adding speed and a high level of skating skills to the list.
Muench has watched Stapleton progress throughout her officiating career.
“I remember seeing her many years ago when she was just starting and since that time she has grown tremendously,” he said. “She’s got good skating skills, she sees the ice well, she’s got a high level of confidence on the ice.”
As the players get bigger, stronger and faster, Muench said that in conjunction, officials must progress in the same manner.
The physicality of the game came easily for Stapleton, who has an athletic build as well as the endurance to keep up to the game. But, if you are on the ice with 190-pound young men, sometimes the strength just doesn’t match up.
“Those (junior A) boys are pretty big, some that are 6-foot-2 and if they get in a fight then maybe it is a little more difficult for some of us to break up,” admits Stapleton.
Being a female hasn’t exactly put a glass ceiling over Stapleton, as there are notable women in a few prominent sporting leagues south of the Canadian border: Becky Hammon, assistant coach for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs; Jen Welker, linebackers coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. But it wasn’t until 2015 when the first female official was invited to the NHL’s summer officiating combine.
Stapleton still has doubts as to whether she will be able to officiate at a higher level of hockey.
“I don’t know if they want females in hockey or not, or if they are still unsure if we can keep up,” she said.
“Maybe we can’t keep up, it’s hard to say. Guys are faster, they are stronger.
“So, whatever female does first break that barrier, she is going to have to have very, very strong skating skills and communication skills and all the skills that are needed to match what the guys are.”
“I think what we see right now is hockey is certainly trying to grow in so many different ways,” he said.
“And at some point, if a female official is capable of working the Western Hockey League, there would be no holding back. We are just looking for capable officials.”
Stapleton is leading the way in Saskatchewan, where she is the first female from the province to accomplish her Level V accreditation. There is only a handful of females officiating at the midget AAA and junior B men’s levels. Stapleton is also one of only five female linesmen at the junior A level.
“I guess when it comes down to it, it’s cool that I am a female and it’s nice that we are getting these opportunities,” she said. “But I am not wanting to get these opportunities just because I am a female.”
In her time as a linesman and referee, Stapleton said she hasn’t experienced the negative slurs some referees have had to endure. What she experiences most is the internal conflicts.
“Sometimes I’ll come back from the rink and be really frustrated -- with how a coach or player acted or if I had a bad game,” she said.
“I’m not perfect. I can’t say I call every game perfectly, so sometimes I am just frustrated with myself.”
Instead, it’s the shock factor that gets the crowd talking.
“Of course, some heads are going to turn when they see a ponytail hanging out of the back of my helmet on the ice,” she laughed.
Stapleton - along with her six Canadian female counterparts - is ready to welcome more talented and determined women into the ranks of officiating hockey.
“I don’t know if WHL or NHL is in my path in the future,” said Stapleton. “But I hope it is for another female.
“And if I can do my part to maybe inspire other girls to get involved and work to get to that level, then I would be very happy.”