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From the AHL to the Olympics, Kelly Cooke is taking ice hockey refereeing by storm

Northeastern law graduate Kelly Cooke was selected to referee women's ice hockey at the Beijing Winter Games. Is the National Hockey League next for her?Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Kelly Cooke is headed off to the Beijing Winter Games in a few days, but the 2019 law school graduate hasn’t had a chance to think about what she’s going to pack.

“I have a lot of books on my list because we’ll have some downtime, but other than that I’m not really sure what I’m taking,” she laughs.

One thing is for certain—she is going to the Olympics as a women’s ice hockey referee. She first got into officiating as a 12-year-old growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, watching her older brother referee at youth hockey games. 

After her collegiate playing career at Princeton ended in 2013—she led the team in goals her senior year—Cooke played professionally in women’s leagues in Massachusetts. In the ensuing years she shed the player’s jersey for the black-and-white striped referee’s uniform.

Her assignments over the years have included the women’s world hockey championships, the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four championship, and the Women’s Beanpot tournament final. In August, she worked the Women’s World Championship, in Calgary, Alberta. 

Being selected for the Beijing Olympics is ‘a dream come true for female officials,’ Cooke says. ‘It’s the pinnacle of our career.’ Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

By October 2021 she had become the second woman to referee a game in the American Hockey League—North America’s second-tier men’s professional league and one step below the National Hockey League. She was one of ten women hired by the AHL.

Then came the official announcement this month from the International Ice Hockey Federation, the sport’s global governing body: Cooke had made the cut as one of a dozen women selected as referees for women’s ice hockey at the Olympics.

“It’s a dream come true for female officials,” she says. “It’s the pinnacle of our career.”

Cooke once harbored thoughts about going to the Games as a player, not so much as an official. “Still, I’m very excited and humbled by the opportunity.”

Most referees will work about five games. The women’s ice hockey schedule kicks off Feb. 3 with Canada taking on Switzerland; Czech Republic vs. China; Sweden battling Japan; and Finland vs. the United States.

It’s possible Cooke may be on the same ice as others from the Northeastern hockey community. She mentions current star Alina Mueller and graduate Kendall Coyne, who play for Switzerland and the United States, respectively. There may be others: “There’s going to be a strong Northeastern presence at the Olympics,” Cooke says.

She is quick to acknowledge the many helping hands in her life who aided her ascent. That includes her parents, who made many early-morning drives to the rink when Cooke was a teen. The Winter Games are “as much an accomplishment for them as it is for me,” she says. “I bet they’ll be awake even if the games are at 3 a.m. Eastern time.”

Now, Cooke is giving back by paying it forward. 

She is teaching the ins and outs of officiating with Caroline Davis, who is studying public health at Northeastern and is a goalie on the club hockey team. Davis is also the daughter of law professor Martha Davis.

“When Kelly found out that my daughter is a ref, she arranged a time for them to work together,” Martha Davis says. “Just being in the refs’ room with another woman is unusual, and my daughter, who would love to follow in Kelly’s footsteps, benefited immensely from the opportunity to learn from Kelly both on and off the ice.”

Since graduating from Northeastern with a law degree in 2019, Cooke has fulfilled another ambition—corporate attorney. She handles mergers and acquisitions for the Boston firm Morgan Lewis. It’s more than a 9-to-5 job, so she falls back on the time management skills honed as a student-athlete in high school and college.

“Both things bring me joy, realizing I have goals for being a lawyer and being a referee,” she says.

As she looks ahead to Beijing, dreams of being an NHL referee are never far behind. Asked to envision what thoughts might be going through her head as she imagines working her first NHL game, Cooke ponders before answering: “thankful.”

“I always think about those that have come before me and opened those doors for me,” she says. “They might not have had the same opportunities that I’m having, but they’re the reason that I am able to have the ones that I am.”

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