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Fraser: The not-so glamourous travelling life of a referee

Kerry Fraser
5/22/2011 10:44:24 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at cmonref@tsn.ca!

Kerry,

First off, I am extremely impressed with your blog. It is extremely insightful. I've played the game, I've coached the game, but never have I officiated the game. My question is regarding traveling for referees. Are refs assigned to divisions or regions of North America? Or are they randomly assigned games? Do you have any interesting stories about traveling with fellow refs?

Timothy Bailey, Tampa, FL

Hey Timothy:

I am happy that you are enjoying the columns.  I love your city as well, especially in January and February when the weather in Winnipeg can hit -90 C with the wind chill. 

It was a special night for 22,717 wild Tampa fans at the Arena on June 7, 2004 when the temperature pushed into the high 90's. It wasn't the heat that I remember about that day but the energy and anticipation that was created throughout the day prior to Game 7 of the Lightning's eventual 2-1 Stanley Cup victory over Calgary. Andrew Ference put the Flames at a disadvantage with one minute and one second remaining in the game as the Flames attempted to score the equalizer when he blasted Martin St. Louis into the end boards. Charging was my call on the obvious infraction and put them one man down until Dave Andreychuk evened it up with a tripping penalty 38 seconds later. Miikka Kiprusoff was pulled for the extra attacker to no avail and the Lightning doused the Flames final flurry to capture their first and only Cup.

The only time I travel to your fair city now is to join other retirees when the 'Snow Birds' fly south with the Canada geese. This wasn't always the case. An NHL referee typically travels between 80,000-120,000 miles per season (including pre-season and playoffs). After a five-day training camp, which includes medicals and a demanding fitness test on day one, we head off to work our exhibition assignments. Unlike a hockey team that resides in an NHL city, the officials' home residences are scattered throughout North America. The league has attempted to accommodate requests made by officials who wish to relocate or they have moved young officials into hockey markets that would provide reduced travel costs through the assignment process.

When Kathy and I relocated from Sarnia to south New Jersey near Philadelphia in 1988 with our six children (number seven was born in 1990) there was tremendous benefit to the league in travel savings relative from my new base. When we lived in Sarnia, 60 miles north of Detroit, it was the only city where I could drive, work the game and return home afterward. Even working a game in Toronto required an overnight stay because you could never count on the winter weather on the drive home.

Based out of the Philadelphia market there are five teams that I was close enough to drive to and return home afterward. The Flyers, Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Capitals were all under a two-and-a-half hour ride, while Pittsburgh and Boston were a four-and-a-half hour drive each way, but also doable depending on weather. As such, if I was scheduled for five games in nine or 10 nights in what is now the Atlantic Division I would be home each night, as well as the off-day between games. When I was based out of Detroit it would have been a 10-day trip.

There is a concerted effort by NHL assigner Randy Hall to assign the referees to an equal number of regular season games in each NHL city over the course of their 73 game schedule. (Linesmen can work 75 games max.)  Since each owner pays an equal share of the league officiating budget they want the top rated officials in their building as many times as the lower ranked officials. (I'll leave the ranking to you.) In theory it also provides a sense of fairness. 

Through expansion and attrition which brought new officials into the league, Bobby Clarke proposed that officials work in set crews and remain in one conference for at least half of the season. He felt this way the players could get to know them better and develop some sort of relationship.  He felt that under the current system a team might see a referee or linesman in a game and not see that individual again for a month.

One of the chapters in my book, The Final Call - coming out in trade paperback this fall and on e-book (more details later) - is entitled "NHL=No Home Life." I wrote about the demands placed on family life through this occupation. In a good month I would be home nine or 10 days.  A busier month would result in as little as three or four days at home with family. Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder and I am fortunate to have married a future saint.

Inclement weather is certainly one of the most difficult things to deal with when you have back-to-back games. In the 1985-86 Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues, coached by Jacques Demers, and Bob Johnson's Calgary Flames I worked Game 6 in St. Louis on May 12. It was a great game and a fabulous story (google "Monday Night Miracle" and you'll see why). The Blues won in OT to force Game 7 back in Calgary on May 14. I received a death threat at the end of the second period that night, but we can save that for another time.

The honourable Jacques Demers (now a Canadian Senator) told me that game was on of two games that he says are the greatest games he ever coached in the NHL. The other was Game 2 in the 1992-93 Stanley Cup Finals when he called for Marty McSorley's stick to be measured. On the ensuing power play, with goalie Patrick Roy on the Canadiens bench for an extra attacker, Eric Desjardins scored to tie the game and force overtime. Desjardins then scored the hat trick in to win it. The L.A. Kings never won another game in the series and the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.  Wayne Gretzky later said Game 2 of that Stanley Cup Final was the bitterest defeat he suffered throughout his career. I had the privilege to referee both of the games that Demers lists as his greatest games as a coach in the NHL.

Back to the 1985-86 Flames-Blues Game 7.
Ray Scapinello, Ron Finn and I flew from St. Louis to Calgary the next day and got in just before a blizzard of the century. Scampy and I were assigned as standby officials for the game and 'Huck' Finn was to work with John D'Amico on the lines and Andy VanHellemond was the referee.  The storm hit in late afternoon and ended up dumping snow that was measured in feet. D'Amico was going to take the last flight out of Toronto the night before the game because he had family business to attend to. His plane couldn't land in Calgary and was rerouted to Edmonton. The road was closed and he couldn't even rent a car to drive between the two cities. You have to understand that J.D. was the consummate professional. 

He would drive to Buffalo from his home in Toronto the night before a regular season game and check into the hotel just to get mentally prepared. I could envision him trying to rent a pair of snow shoes to try and walk from Edmonton. Some poor rental car agent must have been getting an ear full for not renting him a car due to the road conditions. The next morning the road was still closed and the plows couldn't open things up. D'Amico called director of officiating John McCauley and said he would get there somehow. McCauley had left for Calgary on the earlier flight from Toronto and arrived before the storm shut everything down. McCauley advised D'Amico not to put himself at risk because Scampy was there and ready to work the game. 

That was like telling J.D. the game could go on without him and that just wasn't acceptable. John D'Amico hired a farmer that had a monster tractor with a big cab to drive him to Calgary from Edmonton. I've driven it in the comfort of a big Lincoln Town Car - I can't imagine riding in a friggin tractor. But that was John D'Amico.

The tractor couldn't make it either and had to turn around 20 miles outside of Edmonton but J.D. gave it a valiant effort. He was such a dedicated, loyal employee and fan of the game. John put the game above everything else, even his own personal safety. This is just one small reason as to why this legendary linesman was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. What an honour it was to have known Mr. John David D'Amico and worked so many big games with him during my career. His legend still lives on. God bless John D'Amico.

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