Death threats were nothing new to Kerry Fraser. Enduring twisted scare tactics is part of being an NHL official -- a job that challenges one's body, will, mind and spirit -- but this one was different. It came from within the now-razed St. Louis Arena and stopped the referee in his tracks.
As he left the ice for the first intermission of Game 6 of the 1986 Campbell Conference finals between the Blues and the Calgary Flames, a policeman grabbed Fraser and informed him of the call. The authorities warned Fraser to consider the gravity of the situation during the intermission, but he was undeterred.
"I said to the officer, 'I'm going back out there,' " Fraser said. " 'He'd better be a good shot, because I'm a small target and I'm pretty quick.' It didn't really stay on my mind once I got out there. I just got into the game and the adrenaline started flowing. I had a job to do. What would I say, 'No, call the game off, I'm not going back out there?' "
In the macho world of professional ice hockey, officials must be as fearless as the players. But while the tales of bravery among those who carry sticks are part of the game's lore -- Toronto's Bobby Baun scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime in 1964 while playing with a broken ankle best captures the culture of this sport -- the desire, raw athletic skills and toughness of hockey's officials is rarely broached.
It is routine for these men, 14 of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, to receive a host of stitches between periods and race back to the ice. Getting struck by pucks and sticks is a regular occurrence. Taking a misplaced uppercut to the face when breaking up a fight is a rite of passage. They describe concussions, broken bones and stints in physical rehabilitation in the casual manner office workers might discuss the travails of a rush-hour commute.
Few spectators pause while watching a game to assess the skating ability and agility of the referees and linesmen, who adroitly climb the boards, avoid interfering with the play and keep pace with some of the most conditioned athletes in the world within tight confines and unforgiving boards. There is no out of bounds or foul territory. Hockey officials toil within the very fabric of the game.
The pace of the sport has hastened immeasurably. Players have become masses of rippling muscle and fortified bone. The proliferation of instant replay and video review has amplified the demands of officiating. Yet, for the most part, the officials remain unseen on the ice -- and that is how they prefer it.
"There was an era of them doing their jobs when there was no videotape, so there was a lot less scrutiny," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "And what the era of videotape has shown is that their calls and non-calls -- and there are literally hundreds of them in the course of a game -- are right so much of the time.
"It's not that they're perfect, because nobody is, but they are closer to perfect than they are given credit for. What gets focused on is the one or two calls that may get missed, and what is unfair about that is, when that happens, it's because somebody has had the ability to sit down for 30 seconds watching it in slow motion and watching it from four different angles. What our officials do on the ice, skating night in and night out, is simply incredible."
Do not consider a career as a hockey official if the sight of blood causes you to recoil. A fear of needles or hospitals is a definite job hazard. The ability to avoid an oncoming puck, fully capable of speeds above 100 mph, yet still view every skater on the ice is essential. And that is only the beginning.
"It's a thankless job," said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, whose criticism of officials resulted in countless fines during his career. "My brother was a referee, a good referee in the Quebec League, and he loved it. You've got to love it to do it.
"I thought he was crazy, but he didn't care. You've got to have that police mentality -- you've got to be willing to punish people and you can't worry about making friends and influencing people. That comes with the territory. And you've got to make split-second decisions on the ice with [players] making 20, 50 times what [officials] are and there are no home games. All that stuff must go through their minds."
Every official can run off his own litany of injuries. In 1982, Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey's slap shot fractured the end off of Fraser's fibula 10 minutes into a game. Fraser, who has been in the NHL for 26 years, finished working the game, went to the hospital and was out for six weeks. Two years ago, a deflected shot shattered his cheekbone.
Mark Howe, playing for Philadelphia at the time, once fired a puck at Fraser's head after a series of calls went against the Flyers. Fraser warned Coach Mike Keenan to yank Howe off the ice and calm him down, but, since the outburst was out of character for the defenseman, Fraser never reported the incident to the league.
"I was terribly wrong for doing that, and I should have been suspended," Howe said. "But Kerry really gave me a break. He definitely saved me on that one."
Despite it all, Fraser -- at 50 the oldest referee in the league and a veteran of more than 1,400 NHL games, refuses to wear a helmet -- and thus continues to take abuse for his perfectly styled coif from fans and players around the league.
"I'm sort of an old-school guy," Fraser said. "From the beginning I was always a little player and had to stand up and be counted. I was kind of a junkyard dog player, so I came into officiating right out of playing junior with the attitude of never letting the big guys know you're hurt. So if I take a shot or get body-checked or get hurt, I'll come up smiling because it's built into me."
That mentality is prevalent among Fraser's officiating brethren as well. Last season the league endured a rash of injuries to officials, with nearly 10 out because of injury at one point; the league employs 33 referees and 39 linesmen, with 13 replacements working mostly minor league games.
Andy Van Hellemond, who refereed 1,475 games, more than anyone else in league history, now serves as the NHL's director of officiating, and is in charge of overseeing everything associated with the referees and linesmen from scheduling and travel to calling in replacements. Van Hellemond, who was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999, is also at the vanguard of a sweeping evaluation system in which every official travels with a laptop computer and receives daily critiques via e-mail and video downloads.
Van Hellemond, 55, still feels the pain of his previous career. He broke his hand, broke three ribs and separated his sternum after a collision with Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson along the boards. Van Hellemond was twisted awkwardly upon impact and spent five weeks in the hospital with a badly pinched nerve.
"I couldn't feel my right leg for the longest time," Van Hellemond said. "They would put pins and needles in my leg up to my hip and I didn't feel a thing. It was completely blocked."
Eventually a chiropractic adjustment saved Van Hellemond's career. He was also the first official to don a helmet, after finding himself unable to give a sensible reason not to wear one when questioned by pupils at a referee school (helmets were eventually grandfathered in and several veteran officials still do not wear them).
The occupation remains perilous despite major equipment advances since Van Hellemond entered the league. Officials used to wear only what amounted to soccer shin guards under their pants, but now wear a fully padded pant much like the players do. The elbow pads are more advanced, as are the chest protectors, but there is no absolute way to be insolated from pain.
Linesman Pierre Racicot had nine stitches removed from his eye before a game at MCI Center earlier this season. Referee Terry Gregson was struck in the side of his head by a puck during a game there this season as well and needed medical attention, but has not missed a game since March 7, 1989, when he returned after a six-week absence from a broken collarbone.
"I've been fortunate with that stuff," Gregson said. "In my 24 years doing this I've been lucky."
Linesman Leon Stickle tore knee ligaments and was forced to give up officiating. Knee problems also ended linesman Gord Broseker's career. Linesman Wayne Bonney missed an entire season with torn abdominal muscles. Blaine Angus was struck in the face by a shot last season that smashed his cheek and orbital bones. Like the players, many officials play in pain.
"I've never missed a game, knock on wood," referee Don Van Massenhoven said. "I took a stick across the face seven or eight years ago in Pittsburgh. The player was swinging at the puck full circle and hit me right above the eye and he opened me up for 25 stitches. I had a game two nights later and iced it down and took care of it and I was able to officiate. My face didn't look good, but I was able to do it."
Fitness Is Essential
The NHL has been aggressive in recent years to make the game safer for officials. They now have a full-time traveling trainer, Dave Smith, who worked previously for several NHL teams. Smith ensures officials are not jeopardizing themselves by working with severe injuries and assigns each one a detailed workout plan.
There is no room for the unfit in this environment, and conditioning has become a year-round way of life. There are no portly fellows roaming the ice, and the image of the overweight baseball umpire or geriatric football official does not apply here.
Officials undergo an arduous training camp and participate in the same aerobic capacity tests players do. If they fail to meet the stiff standards, they are suspended until they comply; sometimes they are released. They do not sit during games; there is no bench for them. Constant motion is the rule.
"When I first got hired no official had worked past [age] 45," linesman Kevin Collins, 52, said. "And my goal was to get to 45, 46 and then say goodbye, because that's what was done back then. But with the stretching procedures they put us through now and the great job Dave Smith has done setting up a fitness program, it's been critical to us. It's allowed our senior guys, and even the younger guys, to extend their career way beyond what we did before. Now we've got guys who could be 55 and still be on the ice."
Most officials average 70 to 75 games in the regular season, with three or four of those contests somewhat close to home, Van Hellemond said. Sometimes they can work three games in a row, but Van Hellemond tries to the limit the rigor to three games in four nights.
Generally, an official is on the road for 20 to 22 nights a month during the season, getting a few days home every week to two weeks. Some trips can last weeks at a time and with rapid league expansion over the last 10 years and new airport security measures, travel and fatigue have become major obstacles.
"Quite often you'll do three [games] in three [nights], or four in five nights with an off-day to travel," Van Massenhoven said. "I always tell people, 'You can train for the games, physically, but the toughest part of the job and the part you can't train for is the travel.' That's what will tire you out."
Linesman Tim Nowak, who officiated at the 2002 Winter Olympics, moved from his home town of Buffalo to Annapolis five years ago to curtail the endless travel. Maryland's central location allows him access to three major airports and is a short drive from most East Coast arenas.
"It's huge just to be able to go on your own schedule and drive home after a game and sleep in your own bed," Nowak said. "Annapolis is so much more centrally located, and I can do about 25 games in this area."
'Have Another Donut'
The environment on the ice and inside arenas is also improving for officials. Most of the buildings in the NHL are less than a decade old, and, during their construction, the league made an effort to get more secure dressing facilities for officials. In the brawl-filled 1970s and early 1980s, there was no refuge.
Altercations in hallways were common -- then-coach Jim Schoenfeld screaming for referee Don Koharski to "have another donut" is among the most famous -- and officials braced for players and coaches to pound on the door of their dressing room between periods. In 1981-82, Van Hellemond was punched in the chest by Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren, Holmgren was fined only $500 and suspended for five games, and in the playoffs that same season Boston's Terry O'Reilly struck him as well, earning a $500 fine and 10-game suspension. In years since the NHL has imposed harsher fines and suspensions for such actions and forbids players and team officials from venturing to the officials' room.
"The league realized we had to have better security for the officials as they come on and off the ice," Van Hellemond said. "The officials are more secluded now and more out of the line of fire."
"I'm not saying it's necessarily a kinder, gentler line of work," said Gregson, an NHL referee since 1981. "But things like that are controlled better."
At Chicago Stadium, since razed, the officials' dressing room was located down a steep flight of stairs and directly across from the Blackhawks' dressing room; it was common for an irate coach or player to be waiting for the referee if calls went against Chicago.
At Boston Garden officials had to walk below fans and through the Bruins' bench to get on the ice. Collins was caught in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl -- since sternly outlawed -- between Boston and Quebec at the Garden about 20 years ago, when players not in uniform and fans joined in.
"What a mess," Collins said. "It could have been an awful situation. Well, I guess it was an awful situation, but at the time you don't think of it that way. But here we are, we've got skates on and we're rolling down these steps breaking this thing up. We're lucky nobody got seriously hurt or cut open. It was quite an experience."
The incidence of fighting has also decreased dramatically, but it is still a part of the game and linesmen, sometimes half the size of the combatants, must still wade between them. Impish Ray Scapinello, 56, the oldest official in the NHL, is most renowned among players and officials for his guts and cunning. Linesmen must have an innate feel about when to disrupt a fight and how to best protect the fighters, and himself, from absorbing a dangerous level of punishment.
"There certainly is a respect there for these guys," said former winger Tim Hunter, fifth on the all-time penalty minute list and now an assistant coach in San Jose. "I learned a long time ago that when you're in a fight you're relying not only on those guys to hold you back, but to also hold the other [fighter] back so you don't get hit after you've been restrained. . . .
"A lot of these guys ref three games in four nights or three in a row and they don't get home games and the only rest they get is TV timeouts and they're always moving up and down the ice. There is no way they can't be athletes. It's tough, especially on the linesmen. These guys get no respect and if you treat them like a human being that goes a long way."
Not all of the NHL's recent changes have eased the lives of officials, however. In 1998-99, the league went from using one referee per game to staffing two referees for some games, and adopted the measure for all games beginning the following season, an all-encompassing alteration for the men on the ice.
Veteran officials, who spent a decade or more working up from college and the minors, watched as young referees were rushed to the NHL to fill the expanding job pool. Often a veteran and rookie are paired together who naturally see the game differently. Instead of always watching the action from behind in a one-referee system, referees are now stationed in one half of the ice each, face the action and had to become even more adroit at skating backwards and avoiding pucks, which they spend most of the game doing.
The system has its critics -- many officials still privately wonder about the ability to get two referees perfectly in sync for an entire game -- and some longtime officials are also chafed by the new daily critiques being sent out in mass e-mails.
"I think the two-man system is a lot more difficult for them," said Bowman, a hockey historian and initial proponent of the venture. "They have to mesh and nobody approaches things the same way all the time. I still see games and something happens in front of one guy and he lets it go and the other guy calls it from across the ice. I think that causes a lot of animosity from the fans and the players."
But then again, no one enters this profession thinking it will be easy. Every game is essentially a no-win situation. It is impossible to please two teams, two coaches, thousands of fans and a growing legion of superiors in the league hierarchy.
At the same time, what other job offers the chance to skate alongside Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy, travel the world and be a part of history, whether it is Wayne Gretzky setting the all-time scoring mark or Brett Hull scoring a controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime in 1999? No matter how challenging the parameters become, some with a unique love of the sport will always be drawn to this vocation. It is calling an elite few cannot refuse.
"A player once asked me, 'What are you doing out here, why did you give up that other job to take crap from us?' " said Van Massenhoven, a former policeman. "And I said, 'Because pucks only hurt and bullets kill.' But that's not the real reason, not at all. This is still a safer job, but it's also a dream come true."