For over 30 NHL seasons I was unable to take a real winter vacation with my wife and family. That was about to change after retiring from the ice on Sunday, April 11, 2010 with my final game. The Philadelphia Flyers hosted the NY Rangers on the last day of the regular season. The winner of that game would secure the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers won in a shoot-out and marched to the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
My new employer, (TSN) has graciously granted me a week away from the normal format of the column to share a winter vacation with my wife. In place of the question of the day I provide you excerpts from my book, The Final Call.
In The Final Call, I use the seventy-two games I officiated in my farewell season as the centre piece of my story. I relive candid memories from each city I visited, such as the night I was pulled away from the ice by the St. Louis police after a threat was made that if I skated out for the third period I would be shot. I offer a colourful, at times hilarious, behind-the-scenes portrait of our national game, recounting stories of some of hockey's greatest players and coaches.
I provide the following NY Times review of the updated paperback edition and e-book: "Whether it's a controversial call or his recent hard-line stance on head shots, [Fraser] can be counted on to generate a passionate reaction among hockey fans." - New York Times You make the final call! Bon Voyage...
(Excerpts from first chapter: HOLDING ON: THE FINAL GAME)
The relatively short walk along the rubber mat from the officials' dressing room to the ice at the Wachovia Center, home of the Philadelphia Flyers, seems longer today. The kind word and pat on the back I always receive from Louie, our dressing-room door attendant, is softer than usual. It has the feel of an affectionate gesture, the kind extended when old friends part company, not knowing when (or if) they'll see each other again.
This is the final day of another regular season, my 30th in the National Hockey League and 34th as a contracted NHL referee. But it's not just another season; this will be my last!
Just two and half hours from now, the 2009-10 season, and I, will be swept out of the building along with the popcorn boxes, empty beer cups, and other refuse the patrons will have discarded. It is difficult for me to comprehend that time has passed so quickly. With each stride, I recall the tremendous excitement of my very first NHL game as a referee.
Thoughts of that night - October 17, 1980, in Denver, as the Colorado Rockies hosted the Minnesota North Stars - fuse with the bittersweet emotion I now feel. My mind spins out of control as I try to connect the dots of all the games between my first and last. I'm overwhelmed for a moment, then reality takes hold and the analytical part of my brain tells me to check these thoughts along with the rising wave of emotion...
My knees buckle as Lauren [Hart] is joined from a higher place by Kate Smith, whose image and voice now appear and boom out from the big screens over my head. This mirage from the days of the Broad Street Bullies transports me across the parking lot to the Spectrum, and back in time to 1985. For a moment I am poised to drop the puck between Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers and Dave Poulin of the Flyers to begin my very first Stanley Cup final. As I stand at centre ice today, my heart pounds with such ferocity that I can hear it above the decibels generated by Lauren and Kate's powerful vocal cords...
I look down at my right hand, which now holds the puck with a firm grip. Just as I have done 2,164 times before (between regular season and Stanley Cup Playoff games), I ask the two centres to please put their sticks down on the ice-a request I always make politely and which has never been denied. It is now that I normally drop the puck between the waiting sticks, but I find myself hesitating this time. I can't seem to let go. The muscles in my hand squeeze the puck in a vise-like grip for what seems like an entire career.
The players hunger for the black disc, but I don't want to release it. If I drop the puck, it will bring me one second closer to the end. It remains in my hand; I am frozen in time...
(excerpts from last chapter: LETTING GO)
My very first game at the Spectrum was not actually as a referee. In April 1975, I was sitting at home on a rare Sunday morning off, having just returned from an American Hockey League game the night before, when the phone rang at 8 a.m. On the other end of the line was NHL referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison, who asked me to get to Philadelphia right away for the game that night. Linesman Claude Béchard had hurt his back the night before in New York, and I was apparently the only NHL-contracted official available to join linesman Leon Stickle and referee Wally Harris.
The Broad Street Bullies, who would beat the Buffalo Sabres four games to two that year to win the Stanley Cup for the second consecutive year, were playing the Atlanta Flames that night. The Spectrum was an intimidating place to enter for the first time. I wasn't just intimidated by the thought of throwing Bobby Clarke out of a faceoff (which wasn't going to happen), but by working with these two veteran officials, even though they did their very best to make me feel welcome. Leon was a loose and funny guy. He would tell a joke and laugh loudly before he even got to the punch line; just a great guy to be around.
Things went pretty well in the game; by the middle of the third period, the Flyers were ahead 5–2 and there had only been one fight that didn't amount to much. The Flames had shown little interest in going 15 rounds with any of the Bullies that night, which made for a good first visit for me. Stickle handed me the puck for a faceoff in the Atlanta zone and told me to wait before I dropped it because there was a TV commercial timeout. I asked how I would know when the break was over, and Stick (or "Tickle with an S," as he would often say) told me he would let me know. I told Clarke and the Flames centre to hold on, and they waited patiently as I stood and awaited further instructions from the senior linesman. Finally, Wally Harris skated over and said, "Can I ask what the hell you're waiting for to drop that puck?" I said I was waiting for the commercial to end. Wally looked at me as if I had two heads and said, "You dumb-ass, the game isn't even televised! Drop the puck and let's get the hell out of here before they [the Flyers] wake up!" Then, he added, "And don't listen to Stickle anymore."
On Tuesday, join me for a nostalgic visit to Maple Leaf Gardens and the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
For a personally autographed copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit The Book Keeper website.
For a regular copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit here.