Karen Phibbs has made hockey history.
The Londoner was elected chairperson of the Ontario Hockey Association at the group's recent annual general meeting.
Phibbs is the first female head of the OHA, Canada's oldest hockey association, established in 1890. It is also the largest hockey organization at the association level.
Hockey structures are overwhelmingly male dominated.
"Gender has never been an issue with me," said Phibbs, who has been deeply steeped in hockey culture since she met her husband Kent at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Karen, a native of Rochester, N.Y., was rooming at the institute with Bev Orr, Foster Hewitt's niece. Orr introduced her to the Canadians attending the institute who tended to hang out together. Karen and Kent, from St. Thomas, have been hanging out together ever since.
"When you meet the Canadians, you get caught up in hockey," Karen said.
They married and came to St. Thomas where Kent succeeded in the family printing business.
Today, Karen is the financial manager of Phibbs Inc.
Early on, Kent took the job of coaching a juvenile team. "Kent recruited me to become the manager," she said. "I thought it was such an expression of affection that he would ask me to assist him. Then I overheard him say it was much easier to get out of the house if I was with him."
After learning the ropes of minor team management, Karen went to coaching school at Huron Park.
"Kent felt I needed more confidence and knowledge. It was very helpful."
She had been on the St. Thomas minor hockey organization's board of directors as secretary and vice-president. She also won the St. Thomas outstanding citizen award in 1978 for her efforts to raise funds to build a new YMCA, where she had been on the board of directors for years.
After moving to London in 1984, Phibbs went behind the bench for the first time to coach in a bantam game in Huron East. She was helping with game strategy and the defence. She was apprehensive but the opposition coaches, the players and everyone responded positively to her presence, she said.
Phibbs also worked at the association level, serving as treasurer of the Greater London Hockey Association.
With a son in hockey, Karen and Kent bought the junior B London Nationals (then called the Diamonds) and operated the team from 1986 to 1997. Karen did the administrative work for the team and became the secretary-treasurer of the Western junior B league.
Bill Weir, convener of the league, said he first met Phibbs when the family bought the team. "She's been great for the league as well as to myself," Weir said. "Behind the scenes, you could always talk and discuss things and always get a straight answer. Communication is a big thing with her. She's willing to talk anytime, anywhere.
"I think she has a lot of long-range stuff she would like to do. She looks at the whole hockey picture, not just single teams. It's difficult to get people like that."
In 1997, she was asked to be chairperson of a committee set up by the OHA to examine the frictions and common issues between junior hockey and minor hockey. She accepted and began 18 months of research. The OHA oversees about 128 junior teams in the southern portions of Ontario.
"It takes time to change things in hockey," Phibbs said. In other words, the committee's report wasn't greedily embraced.
But what was satisfying for Phibbs was that the Open Ice Summit held the following year came to the same conclusions about how players should move through the system and the allotment of development fees.
Her committee had started a far more wide-ranging discussion of the state of hockey, which has now evolved into Hockey Canada's CDM -- the Canadian Development Model. Ironically, among other things, the CDM basically severely limits any player under 17 from playing junior hockey, a sore point with OHA junior teams.
And the NHL made drastic changes to improve its game, known as "the new NHL."
More administrative work followed quickly for Phibbs when Bill Billington of London, a past OHA chairperson, recruited her to the OHA board of directors. She also became a member of the board of the next organization up -- the Ontario Hockey Federation. She served as chairperson of the OHA's junior division and advanced to become vice-chairperson of the OHA two years ago.
Billington first met Phibbs when she was a trainer with the St. Thomas midgets and he was coaching in Stoneybrook. "She's a kind, judicious person who knows the game," he said. "She's extremely well organized and efficient.
"The OHA is a million-dollar situation so it's good with her business background to bring that necessity to our table."
Billington said he has never heard a negative word in hockey circles regarding Phibbs's gender. "These days people are just wondering if someone can do the job."
Although Phibbs has mainly worked with the junior teams and leagues in the southwestern corner of the province, she has the respect of the tier 2 junior A teams around Toronto and to the east, Billington said. "And she speaks up at OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation) meetings and makes sure nothing is put over on junior hockey."
Phibbs feels she understands all aspects of hockey because of her background experience. When she was chairperson of the junior division, she even made a point of learning the officiating aspect by watching games with referee assigners.
"It's helpful for me when a coach calls with a complaint that I know his point of view," Phibbs said.
In her mandate, Phibbs wants in the short term to oversee the new rule emphasis adopted through Hockey Canada.
Rule changes were implemented quickly in the NHL because it's a self-contained professional league, she said. It will take more time at the amateur level, where participants are part-time officials, players are largely students and administrators are volunteers, she said. The OHA will be experimenting in the Niagara area this season with a two-referee, one-linesman system of enforcing rules like those of the NHL.
She wants to put on a push to recruit new officials. "This is a great opportunity for those who are finished with playing hockey to stay in the game," she said. If more than three officials per game are needed to enforce the rules, there will be a greater need for the pool of officials, particularly referees, to expand.
Another goal Phibbs wants to achieve is making administration of hockey teams "as simple and efficient" as possible. "Teams face challenges with sponsorships and marketing. Maybe we can help with that."
In the longer term, she wants to deal with the OHA's own progression of personnel. "A lot of people here are long term and we have to have a strategy of succession to move forward and maintain the integrity of the organization."
OHA president Brent Ladds, for one, has served the board of directors notice that the long-serving employee wants to retire in five years at the outside. "Brent Ladds is the Wayne Gretzky of hockey administration," said Phibbs.
While Phibbs has assumed the top spot in a historic hockey empire, she also continues at the grassroots level, watching a seven-year-old -- one of her "gang of five" grandchildren -- who has taken up hockey.