At 5 feet, 1 inches tall, she was a foot shorter than many of the players. The speed and force of their skating and collisions were a revelation. But then, as always, Kelly Cooke adapted.
She became one of the first women to officiate games at the recent NHL Prospects Showcase for players hoping to reach the ultimate hockey league.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to be the first—to open doors for future generations—that’s a big load on your shoulders,” says Cooke, who graduated from the School of Law at Northeastern in May. “Knowing that the games went well, I couldn’t be happier. Because everyone’s watching, and you don’t want to mess up and have the doubters think that they were right.”
Hockey has been lagging behind. But the emergence of four women officials at the NHL’s preseason tournament for prospective players signalled the league’s interest in officiating diversity. League Commissioner Gary Bettman has predicted that a woman will officiate in the NHL eventually.
“I never would in a million years have thought that I would have the opportunity to do that,” Cooke says of her breakthrough NHL appearances. “I’m just taking it day by day and embracing all the opportunities. And the chances to work with these amazing referees, to learn from them and pick their brains.”
Cooke refereed three games in Nashville, where prospects from four NHL teams competed.
“You have these 18-to-22 year-old guys who are competing for roster spots, or to make the main training camp,” Cooke says. “To see the compete level, and the big hits that started as soon as the puck was dropped—that was pretty neat to see from ice level.
“The players treated me just like they would treat any of the other refs, which to me is a sign of respect: I don’t want them to treat me any differently because I’m a female,” Cooke says. “I met the GMs of the [Nashville] Predators and the [Washington] Capitals, and they were interested to hear about my past and how I got there. And they were very positive about seeing a woman on ice.”
Cooke was assistant captain as a forward at Princeton who led the team in goals her senior year. She went on to play three years professionally with the Boston Blades and the Boston Pride.
Her career in officiating began as a 12-year-old in Andover, Massachusetts, where she had watched her older brother make extra money refereeing youth hockey games. Her leading assignments have included women’s world hockey championships, in addition to the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four and the Women’s Beanpot Final last season. She was among 96 officials at the NHL Exposure Combine for prospective officials in August, from which 30 officials were chosen to work the Prospects Showcase.
During the past year at law school, Cooke refereed as many as a half-dozen professional and college games per week, while also working out to maintain her conditioning. She will be cutting back on hockey assignments when she starts her full-time job in October with the corporate department of Morgan Lewis, a law firm in Boston.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, knowing that I won’t be able to work as many games,” she says of her new law career. “They’ve been very supportive, and they want you to succeed in other areas of your life. So I think it’s going to be a good fit.”
If the NHL offers her the ultimate invitation, Cooke will respond to the pressure by reverting to her fundamentals—much as she did in Nashville. She cannot afford the luxury of dwelling on her pioneering role as a woman in a man’s league.
“You go back to your routine, and you don’t really think about it,” Cooke says. “You’re just like the players: You get in the groove, and you focus on being out there.”