How 2 best friends donned officials' stripes and made N.L. hockey history

Last weekend, Leah Rideout, left, and Clare Howie became the first two women to officiate at the men's Junior B level in Newfoundland and Labrador.  (Mike Moore/CBC - image credit)
Last weekend, Leah Rideout, left, and Clare Howie became the first two women to officiate at the men's Junior B level in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Mike Moore/CBC - image credit)
Mike Moore/CBC
Mike Moore/CBC

They learned the ropes together and now they're making history together. Clare Howie of Paradise and Leah Rideout of Clarenville are the first women to officiate Junior B hockey in Newfoundland and Labrador — the highest level ever reached by women in stripes in the province.

"I think it's a massive step for us in Newfoundland and Labrador officiating, for sure. We've already seen across the country that women are already doing this kind of stuff," said Howie, who donned the referee's orange arm bands on Sunday as the game's first woman to do so at the junior level.

And it's fitting that the pair would share such an important step for women in hockey in N.L. — they've been climbing the refereeing ranks together every step of the way, completing degrees in kinesiology at Memorial University together and even working for the same company as part of their work terms.

The two met in Gander, attending the Officiating Program Of Excellence, Hockey Canada's development pathway for aspiring officials.

"We got selected to go to OPOE in Gander for the female U16 camp and we just clicked," said Rideout, who became the first Junior B lineswoman in a game the night before Howie's debut.

"It just always seems to be us lining up together."

Calming the nerves

Rideout got her officiating start in Clarenville, where there was simply a need for more referees in the town of just over 6,000 people.

At 18 she began to take what was, at first, just a winter job a little more seriously, she said, seeing bigger opportunities present themselves with Atlantic tournaments being hosted in her hometown.

For Howie, things progressed from a simple suggestion from a friend in Paradise that they should operate the game clock for minor hockey games in their community.

St. John's Junior Hockey League/Facebook
St. John's Junior Hockey League/Facebook

Young referees learn from experience and are guided through the job by seasoned veterans who provide feedback after each game.

As the pair progressed, so too did their confidence — and the confidence of the senior official staff.

"They have really put a lot of faith in us. So when they assigned us those games over the weekend, it was a real shock, honestly. It was an unreal feeling to be a part of history," Rideout said.

"We talked about it at work. We were a little bit nervous, we don't want anyone to know. We were just kind of going with the flow, do our warm-up, get our headphones in, just make it like any other game, just do our job."

However, their games weren't like any other game before. The buzz was building ahead each of their matchups about what was transpiring.

St. John's Junior Hockey League/Facebook
St. John's Junior Hockey League/Facebook

A long-standing hockey tradition in for rookie players to take the first lap in warm-ups on their own, while their teammates stand at the gate and watch.

For referees, it's no different. The first steps on the ice this weekend for Rideout and Howie were solo ones.

"I didn't really know all about the rookie lap, but they were like, 'You're doing the rookie lap.' I would go out first and they would follow me. That's what they told me," said Howie.

"I shoot out and then when I take that turn I look back and then I laugh and see they're not following me."

Long time coming

When Ed Flood was elected Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador's referee-in-chief in 2017, increasing the number of women officials was one of his priorities.

When Flood stepped in there were 68 women officiating hockey in the province. That number grew to 108 ahead of the pandemic — about 18 per cent of Hockey N.L.'s total refereeing staff.

But the pandemic hurt the organization's numbers, forcing some officials to step away from the game completely. However, Flood said, HNL is back to 78 women calling the games, and the number is expected to grow as training programs wind down this month.

And while the sport has historically been male-dominated — in playing and officiating — Flood said last weekend's games with Howie and Rideout at the helm were a win for everyone.

NL Balance & Dizziness Centre/Facebook
NL Balance & Dizziness Centre/Facebook

He said the push came from the league itself, zone co-ordinator Steve Orr, Sheldon Keough of the Metro Referees Association and official Chris Bishop, who handles the scheduling.

"They decided a little while ago, if we have officials who are talented enough to do this, skilled enough to do this, whether or not they're male or female, it shouldn't matter," said Flood.

"They worked really hard in the last two years to hone their skills, to be noticed well enough and to have the skills to officiate at this level."

As for Howie and Rideout, they're soaking in the experience and assuringe everyone that last weekend's games weren't a one-off.

"It's pretty awesome to make history with your best friend," Howie said.

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