My pal Rich Rank died a year ago Jan. 3. This Thursday, one year and 12 days later, Rich's 27-year-old son Garrett will officiate his first-ever NHL regular season game (in Buffalo, with the Minnesota Wild visiting the Sabres).
It's going to be special.
The Rank family -- Rich's widow Deby; eldest son Kyle, the former pro hockey player turned firefighter; and youngest child, daughter Caelen, who recently graduated to become a nurse -- will of course be at First Niagara Center to cheer on Garrett, who'll drop the puck for real on the opening faceoff, wearing No. 48 on the back on his NHL referee's jersey. Rich's good pal Steve Webb, aka Webby, will be there, too, along with about 90-plus others from the Rank's hometown of Elmira, Ont., who will load into two buses, armed (no doubt) with a lot of beer and even more stories about a remarkable man and extraordinary Canadian family on what will be quite the night.
"It will be emotional, that's for sure," said Rich's friend Webby. "Rich would have been so pumped."
"My Dad will be there in spirit," Kyle said. "He'd be so proud, he would be right over the moon."
"This is what he wanted for me," Garrett said. "He wanted me to be an NHL referee. It will be so emotional, so exciting to have all my family and friends there. I always feel like my Dad is out there with me and I know he will be (on Thursday)."
I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea.
Rich Rank and I were not best friends, though the man who died far too young of a heart attack at age 57 had that rare ability to make anyone he came into contact with just once feel like a best friend.
Rich and I shared one hockey season, 2006-07, watching our kids play together on the St. Lawrence University Skating Saints. Rich's son Kyle, a 1982 born, was a senior centre and co-captain. My son Mike, a 1986 born, was a freshman left winger.
I would stand on the rail alongside Rich for home games at cozy Appleton Arena. Rich would give me sage advice – "enjoy every minute of this (college hockey experience) because four years goes by in the blink of an eye" -- and he would talk about the joys of watching our kids play and having a post-game beer afterwards. I would reciprocate by looking up Toronto Maple Leaf scores for him on my phone and passing along the mostly bad news to the true-blue Maple Leaf fan. Some nights, if the Saints were filling the net and old Appleton was rockin, we'd look at each other after a goal, exchange high fives, and he'd laugh and say to me, "It doesn't get any better than this, does it?" He had a big booming voice to go along with a good-sized frame, and big mitts that would envelop your hand when he shook it, but none of it was as big as his heart, which must have finally given out because he'd given so much of it to so many others.
To be honest, back then, I didn't know that much about Rich's life in Elmira, the small town just northeast of Waterloo, Ont., where he was a larger than life figure, the close-knit community's unofficial mayor, dubbed by some as Mr. Elmira. But I knew he must be something special because his son, Kyle, most certainly was.
Kyle went to SLU in Canton, N.Y., to play golf. He was a longshot walk-on to the hockey team, but played four full seasons for head coach Joe Marsh, becoming a top-line centre and co-captain with defenceman Drew Bagnall in their senior years.
If there were just one thing I'd want my son Mike to take from his four years of college hockey – and believe me, there were so many more things he did take than just one – I'd want it to be the example set by Kyle Rank and Drew Bagnall as captains that year. They showed exemplary leadership, heart, grit and determination. They carried themselves like men and taught their younger teammates to do the same. They played hard, they played for keeps and yet they were every bit as caring for their teammates and the team as they were relentless against their opponents.
At season's end that year, head coach Marsh cited the leadership of Rank and Bagnall as special as he'd ever had in his 20-plus years at SLU. Not surprisingly, SLU finished first in the ECAC regular season that year, lost in the semi-finals of the ECAC tournament but still qualified for the NCAA tourney, losing in the first round to the Boston College Eagles of Cory Schneider and Brian Boyle vintage. SLU hasn't been back to the NCAA tournament since.
Bagnall is still playing pro hockey – surprise, he's captain of the AHL's Rochester Americans this season – and Kyle Rank went on to play parts of five pro seasons, amassing 160 AHL regular season games for Bridgeport, Wilkes-Barre, Portland and Rochester and an additional 57 ECHL games in Wheeling and Cincinnati before hanging up his skates to become a Waterloo, Ont., firefighter, a husband and father of two little girls, for whom on Sunday he was out in the backyard flooding a rink.
"I'm not sure many kids growing up dream of one day being an NHL referee and Garrett didn't, at least not at first, but my Dad always loved being a ref and wanted Garrett to become one," Kyle said. "Dad was always refereeing games and when Garrett followed in his refereeing footsteps, it was really special for him. That's why (Garrett's first NHL game) is going to be so special."
Rich Rank's job was working for the Township of Woolwich, though he never treated it like a job. More like an opportunity to meet and talk to people. He'd drive a snow plow in the winter. In the summer, as the story goes, he'd flush the town's water mains by turning on the fire hydrants and if it were a particularly hot summer day and kids were out on the street, the hydrant might run a lot longer than it was supposed to. Mostly, though, he loved talking to people. He loved to hear their stories, get to know them, treat each and every one of them like special friends.
It was expensive having three kids growing up and playing sports, so Rich had part-time jobs as well. Those were just further opportunities to meet and greet more people. He would drive a truck for the feed mill, referee whenever he could, which was often. Minor hockey, beer league hockey, it didn't matter. Richie, as his close friends would call him, loved to put on the stripes and pick up his whistle. He treated the games he did like social outings. And, for him, they were.
Because the Ranks lived so close to the local Elmira arena, if a referee didn't show up to an assigned game, the phone would ring at the Rank household and the call would go out to Richie.
"My Mom referred to our house as Grand Central Station because that's how busy it was, with the phone ringing and the comings and goings with my Dad," Garrett said. "My Dad would get those calls, 'There's no ref here' and he'd be flying out the door to the rink. He loved it."
"With the town, Rich worked a lot of early mornings or late nights, plowing or whatever," his friend Webby said. "Then there was all the refereeing he did. So when he got some free time, he'd like to come over to my place for a beer and to watch hockey (on TV) and it usually wasn't long until he'd be asleep in the chair. That was Rich. He liked having a beer, watching a game and falling asleep."
Rich Rank died that morning of Jan. 3, 2014, while at work. He'd taken his truck/plow on a salting run and was in Conestoga, at the salt dome there, filling up the truck for the return ride to Elmira. It was there he suffered a heart attack. No one else was there with him. By the time he was found, it was too late. He was gone.
The memorial service was six days later, on Jan. 9. I knew Rich but not really. Not until I attended the ceremony with 800 others inside the Elmira Lions Hall – the same place where the town gathered for NHL player Dan Snyder's post-funeral reception after his tragic death in 2003 – and another 200 who spilled outside on a biting cold day was it possible to fully comprehend the stature of the man in his community and the overwhelming sense of loss.
Rich Rank was a special guy; it should come as no surprise he has special kids.
No brother should ever have to make the phone call Kyle Rank made to Garrett, to tell him that their Dad had died that Friday morning in early January.
Garrett was in Sydney, N.S., refereeing at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge when he got the word from his big brother.
In the days to prior to that, the phone calls Garrett was getting in Sydney were from his Dad, checking up on how Garrett's tournament was going. Garrett had told him it was going well, he thought there was a chance he might get chosen to do the gold-medal game on Saturday. Garrett said Rich was ecstatic.
"Dad was following Garrett's work at the (U-17) closely," Kyle said. "When I talked to Garrett -- well, it was obviously emotional, it's not a phone call you want to make – but we talked it over and he decided he wanted to stay and see (the U-17) through to the end. Some people might not understand that, but there was nothing he could do at home right then and if you knew my Dad, my Dad would want Garrett to work that gold-medal game."
Which is exactly what he did.
"It was tough," Garrett said, "it was very emotional but the last time I had talked to my Dad, he was excited I might have the chance to the do the gold-medal game. So when I got the chance to do it, I know my Dad would have been the first one telling me to do it."
The day after his Dad died, more than 2,000 kilometres from his family in Elmira, Garrett Rank stepped on the ice for the USA-Pacific Canada gold-medal match and did his job like a pro.
"Can you imagine having the composure to do that game under those circumstances?" brother Kyle marveled. "I think he proved then he's an official who can deal with pressure and adversity. My Dad would have been so proud of Garrett for doing that. Our family, anyone who knew my Dad, we all backed Garrett 100 per cent. We're all so proud of him."
The truth is officiating hockey games wasn't Garrett's first love.
It was playing golf.
Which is understandable, since he's so good at it.
While Garrett Rank will officiate NHL and AHL games this season, and that is his chosen career now, he's already qualified to play in the 2015 RBC Canadian Open golf tournament on the PGA calendar, by virtue of capturing the Canadian Mid-Amateur Golf Championship last summer at the Barrie Country Club, winning it on a first-hole playoff.
In the summer of 2012, he finished second in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. A first-place finish would have given him automatic inclusion in the 2013 Masters.
Last summer was his best as an amateur golfer. In addition to the championship win that gave him the berth in the 2015 Canadian Open, he finished sixth in the Canadian Amateur Championship in Winnipeg, second in the U.S. Players Amateur Championship in South Carolina, third in the Monroe Invitational in New York as well as a round-of-32 performance at the U.S. Amateur Championship and a round-of-16 performance at the U.S. Public Links Championship.
Until he signed his contract to be an NHL official in training in August, working mostly this season in the AHL, he was a member of Golf Canada's amateur national team. He carries a handicap of plus-5, which means in any tourney in which handicap is applied, he's five strokes behind to start.
Garrett played Junior B hockey with the Waterloo Siskins and Elmira Sugar Kings but he always knew he was far more gifted with a golf club than a hockey stick. He went to the University of Waterloo on a golf scholarship and made the varsity hockey team as a walk on, same as his big brother at SLU. But after one year of hockey, he knew he wanted to focus on golf.
He became a two-time OUA individual golf champion and was the University of Waterloo's athlete of the year in 2012.
If all of this is difficult to comprehend, consider he's also a cancer survivor. In 2011, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery but, fortunately, didn't require chemotherapy or radiation and recent scans show he's free and clear of the disease.
"I never knew for sure which way Garrett was going to go – to golf or refereeing hockey – but to be that good at two things is really remarkable," proud brother Kyle said. "All I knew is he would be really successful at whichever one he chose because he's an amazing person."
Kyle is hopeful his little brother may let him carry his bag and caddy a round in the Canadian Open in Glen Abbey this summer. Garrett isn't ruling it out, although he knows he's in tough because he isn't able to play as much golf as he used to. A pro caddy will be required to give him every edge possible, but Kyle is likely to get his wish, for at least a practice round anyway.
"Obviously, being a professional referee now makes it really hard for me golfing but I still get my summers off and I still get in my rounds when I can," said Garrett. "I'll do my best (to stay competitive)."
Failing that, little brother Garrett knows that as good a golfer as big brother Kyle is, and he is quite good, Garrett will likely always hold the upper hand on the links.
"Kyle can give me a real good run when we're on our course in Elmira because he is a very good golfer and knows the course so well," Garrett said. "But if I get him on another course, one he hasn't been on before, he isn't going to beat me."
As for the choice between golfing and officiating, Garrett never had any doubt which way his Dad wanted him to go.
"Maybe it's because he was a good, old Canadian boy who loved hockey or maybe he knew how hard it is to make a living in golf, but he was always pushing me (towards officiating)," Garrett said. "He knew what was best for me."
Garrett said he started officiating as soon as he was old enough to get certified in his teen years, "doing tyke games at 6 a.m. and freezing my --- off" to earn spending money while he focused on playing golf and hockey. Once he decided to quit playing hockey at Waterloo, he didn't officiate at all, expending all his time and effort on golf.
As relatively successful as he was in amateur golf, it wasn't paying the bills and as time wore on, he wasn't getting any younger. So former NHL official Lance Roberts was instrumental in getting Garrett out of officiating retirement and he started working the lines in local Junior B games in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. From there, Garrett saw an opportunity and moved onto the Ontario Hockey League, where he was a referee. When he played Jr. B hockey in Waterloo, NHL officiating manager Al Kimmel was his coach. With Kimmel scouting officials on behalf of the NHL, it wasn't long before Garrett got noticed and another door opened up for him.
"We liked how he carried himself as a referee," NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom said. "Some guys are naturally inclined to be refs and Garrett seems to have that quality. You can see he's accustomed to pressure, how he's handled it as a golfer. I don't think missing a hooking call in a hockey game can be as difficult as coming back from missing a three-foot putt in golf for a championship. There's a real laid-back confidence to Garrett. He's just starting out, there's still a lot of work for him to do to make his way, but he's off to a very good start."
Garrett will never know what would have happened had he forsaken officiating to pursue golf as a pro, but what he does know is it was time to start making a living and the door to refereeing in the professional ranks was wide open. It's a decision his Dad Rich would have endorsed; it's a decision Garrett is more than comfortable with, especially now that he's making his NHL debut this week.
The Rank boys don't take anything for granted. Their Dad taught them not to ever get too far ahead of themselves. But that isn't to say there aren't some plans possibly being hatched as we speak.
Kyle Rank and Webby know Garrett has a couple of other NHL games on his upcoming calendar – one in Nashville and a Saturday night later this season in Edmonton – so some road trips may be in the works for Rich's eldest boy and good friend.
"My Dad never missed much that involved any of his kids," Kyle said, "so I'm thinking there may be some road trips coming up here, me and Webby better carry on that family legacy because if my Dad could be there to watch his kids, he would be there."
Which brings us to Thursday night in Buffalo, where Rank family and friends will gather not only to celebrate Garrett's arrival as an NHL referee, but, no doubt, Rich's life that touched so many as well.
"Corny as it may sound," Kyle Rank said, "my Dad will be there, too. He'll be watching."
"It's a dream come true," Garrett Rank said. "For me, and my Dad. He'll be right there with me. Always."
I know what a pal of mine would say to that: "It doesn't get any better than this, does it?"
No, Rich - it doesn't.