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A woman who helped forge a path for female hockey officials in Canada says there’s still work to be done in combating gender inequality across the sport.

A lot has changed since Laurie Taylor-Bolton first picked up a whistle in Newmarket, Ont., in the early 1980s. She was the lone woman among a sea of 41 men at her first training clinic and was 15 years old when she joined the small handful of female officials working across Canada.

“You can imagine there were a lot of inappropriate and offensive comments directed and me on the ice,” she said in an email.

But while female officials say they’re no longer subjected to on-ice harassment based on their gender, some say there’s still work to be done in breaking down barriers and fully incorporating women into hockey.

“We need women to be seen as the strong, independent role models in leadership positions,” said Taylor-Bolton, now the referee-in-chief for the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association.

“I want young girls to know they have just as many opportunities.”

However, the push for change has at times been slow. Taylor-Bolton noted that female officials in Canada can’t achieve the same level of certification as their male counterparts.

Under Hockey Canada’s system, men can go up to Level 6, while women top out at Level 5.

The women’s top level “clearly mirrors” the men’s, but it’s problematic that the inequality persists, Taylor-Bolton said.

Over her nearly 19 years as referee-in-chief, Taylor-Bolton has heard a variety of reasons for the discrepancy, including that there are not enough female officials to warrant a Level 6.

But none of the reasons are “acceptable as to why women are not afforded the same training and opportunity,” she said.

“In my view, in 1998 when we stepped onto the Olympic stage (when women’s hockey made its Olympic debut, with Taylor-Bolton as one of the officials), we should already have had a Level 6 and equality, whether there was one woman or many.”

The Olympics were a major step, Taylor-Bolton acknowledges.

“It is hard to articulate what it felt like, but it gave a legitimization to female hockey and all we worked and lived for,” she said. “It wasn’t just a statement about hockey, it was a statement that women could do anything. Culture change is slow and varied, but we took a giant move forward.”

The uphill climb continues for some, however.

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Referee Erica Holmes officiates a game at the Mac's Tournament in Calgary on Dec. 27, 2018.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Last month, Erica Holmes spoke to The Canadian Press about her frustration over being passed up for work in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The Calgary-based official wants to work as a linesman in the AJHL but said she was being held back to work as a ref at lower levels while her male colleagues advanced.

Holmes was the second woman to express concern about allegedly being kept from the league. The AJHL said the decision to not advance the women was not based on their gender.

Working in the league would provide experience with faster hockey, where officials need to make decisions more quickly, said Holmes, who wants to eventually work international games.

“This is a step to bettering myself as an official, that will hopefully help me accomplish my goals,” she explained.

There are differing stories from across the female hockey landscape, though. One young official in Vancouver doesn’t feel her gender has held her back, but she knows that could change.

“I think that’s often a concern in higher levels. I don’t think I’ve reached a level yet where that’s a concern,” said 18-year-old Hazel Barthel.

Currently in her sixth season of officiating, Barthel works about three games a week in triple-A hockey while balancing a full course load at university. She wants to work women’s university games, which she said offer the highest level of female play in the Lower Mainland.

In Saskatchewan, four officials recently made headlines when they became the first all-female team to work a triple-A game in the province.

Marking the milestone was important for 28-year-old Michelle Stapleton, who said her late officiating mentor had always wanted to walk into an officials room and greet them with “Hi ladies!”

“It was something we really wanted to do,” Stapleton said. “It was kind of a way to make that dream come true It was just really special to be a part of it.”

She doesn’t think much about being a woman in a field dominated by men, in part because it’s nothing new — in her day job, Stapleton works as a project co-ordinator for a large construction company.

“(Officiating) is kind of that part-time gig that kind of takes up more than a part-time part of your life,” she said from Regina. “But it’s something I really enjoy.”

There are times, though, when she hears chirps from the crowd. Unlike Taylor-Bolton’s early experience, the comments are never based on her gender.

“It’s not me being any different, being a female. We all hear it. So we just try to tune it out and go on with our game,” she said. “It’s just the nature of the game.”

Now in her 12th year of officiating, Stapleton works between three and six games a week, doing lines in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, reffing in some lower-level men’s leagues and working women’s triple-A and university games.

There are some differences in officiating men’s and women’s hockey, she said.

“Hitting is the biggest aspect. Sometimes, you just have to change the way you watch the game,” she said.

In men’s hockey, Stapleton watches a hit to see if it’s clean whereas in women’s games, she said there’s often less of a physical impact at the end of a play.

Males tend to be heavier and taller, but aside from checking, working men’s and women’s hockey games aren’t all that different, Taylor-Bolton said.

A woman’s physical ability to break up fights has long been cited as a reason for keeping female officials from working higher-level male games, she added.

But it’s not an excuse she finds valid.

“In 2019 we have females working in the military, fire fighting, police officers and many other dangerous and very physical (jobs),” Taylor-Bolton said. “I think that debate ended years ago and I suspect hockey would follow. Skating and technical skill can be developed regardless of gender.”

Creating more opportunities for women in hockey will require more support and development, she said.

Leagues like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League need to be recognized as an important part of development for athletes, trainers, coaches, officials and even fans, she said.

Eventually, she envisions female officials working at the highest level of men’s hockey.

“While I think we are a long way off due to some of the barriers, women officiating in the NHL is possible,” Taylor-Bolton said. “However, the NHL is just another elite league.”

Stapleton, too, sees a day where female officials work in the NHL.

“Somebody’s going to break that glass ceiling,” she said. “It just takes time, it takes females working up through the levels, just like the males do.”

With files from Donna Spencer

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