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Off Campus: From Youth Ice Hockey Player to Ref at Madison Square Garden

Published on
June 18, 2021


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Chelsea Ward McIntosh (right) is an ice hockey ref, along with her sister Brie, when not at work.

shafere1 [at] (By Emily Shafer)

Chelsea Ward McIntosh frequently skates by on thin ice — quite literally.

Ward McIntosh, a project manager in the Center for Injury Research and Prevention, spends a good bit of her time outside of CHOP on the rink, officiating ice hockey games. She recently reached a major milestone in her 10-year side career: Ward McIntosh officiated the first professional women's hockey game ever played at Madison Square Garden in February.

"It was quite surreal, being on the rink at Madison Square Garden," Ward McIntosh said. "It's one of my most memorable experiences as an official."

Hockey runs in the blood for Ward McIntosh, whose sister is also an ice hockey official. Her love for the game started when she was a child. Although she and her sister started figure skating, "because that's what girls did," their father played ice hockey, and the sisters told him they wanted to play too.

"Back at that time, there weren't any girls' teams, so we played with the boys for a while, and then I played through college," Ward McIntosh said. "I did some coaching after that, and then decided it was time to give back in a new way. It dawned on me that since I'm sitting around the rink all day anyway, I might as well get paid for it!"

With encouragement from her sister, Ward McIntosh pursued her certification to become a ref, and she has been officiating for about 10 years. To be certified, potential refs first complete an online learning portion to learn the rules. Even if you've played hockey your entire life, being a ref is a whole new position to master, Ward McIntosh said. An in-person portion of the certification process covers physical skills, such as where to stand, how to drop the puck, and how to make signals. Once all the training is complete, newly minted refs receive a "card and crest:" This is a card that says you can officiate, and a patch that you wear that proves you have passed all of the requirements.

Organized Chaos

Chelsea Ward McIntosh

Chelsea Ward McIntosh and her sister at Madison Square Garden.

Ward McIntosh calls herself an anxious official because she likes to be able to see everything. Where is the play going? Who's going to potentially get in a fight with someone else? She is constantly trying to anticipate what's going to happen next, mainly so she can get out of the way of play and prevent players from escalating.

"It's very chaotic, but it's like an organized chaos in a way," she said. "I don't care what the score is, and I don't care what penalties happen. I just don't want anybody to get hurt on my ice."

One of the most difficult parts of a game is the people who yell at officials, which is basically everybody, she said with a laugh.

"Everybody from players, to coaches, to people in the penalty box, and parents in the stands," she said. "It's the rule of thumb that everyone hates the officials. It's just the ubiquitous sports experience to yell at the refs."

The stands were empty, however, for the game at Madison Square Garden, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was nice to have fewer people yelling at her, she did miss the excitement from fans and the cheering.

Peak of Career

Ward McIntosh does not aspire to officiate a Flyers game; she mainly focuses on youth hockey. The highest level of boys'/men's hockey she's worked is Tier III Juniors, which includes players up to young adult age who mostly aren't going to play in college. For women's hockey, Ward McIntosh officiates NCAA DI and DIII as well as the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). One of her most memorable games is the first youth national tournament she went to, where she was a ref for a gold medal game. Another memorable game was when she was involved in a "line brawl" while working a NWHL game.

"That's where everybody on the ice just starts fighting each other," she said. "My job in that game was to try to break everyone up. It's very difficult when there is only two of us to break up a fight with 10 people."

This year, Ward McIntosh ran the first camp for just female hockey officials in the region. In addition to usual officiating training, they were also able to address issues for female officials in a male-dominated sport, such as, how do you see around players who are six feet tall, when you're only five feet tall?

"It's these little things that most officials don't think about, but are very unique to us female officials," Ward McIntosh said. "It's very exciting to be able to train the next group of female officials."