In 16 years living in St. Louis, Tim Peel has been a frequent visitor to Busch Stadium, but never in January.
He’ll be dressed warmly like many in the expected crowd of 50,000 for the NHL’s Winter Classic on Jan. 2. But unlike them, his outer layer won’t be Blues’ or Chicago Blackhawks’ attire.
Peel will be wearing black and white stripes with orange arm bands and the No. 20 on his back. The 50-year-old has been chosen to referee the league’s premier outdoor game in his adopted hometown. He learned of the assignment more than a month ago and now that the game is just a week away, he’s starting to get chills.
“That was part of the reason I was hoping I’d get to do this because I am a huge Cardinals fan,” Peel said. “We’re going to get dressed in the umpires’ room and then walk up those stairs and out the dugout to the rink. It’ll be fantastic and next time I’m at Busch Stadium to watch a Cardinals game, I’m sure I’ll have some great memories of being on that field officiating a National Hockey League game.”
Peel, who was born in Toronto but moved to New Brunswick at an early age, has been officiating hockey games since he was 13 years old. As a teenager, he worked at a golf course, cleaning clubs and caddying. The money was good, but when winter rolled around the funds dried up.
“Mom and dad suggested that since I was at the rink everyday, I should referee the guys below me, 5-6-7 years old,” Peel said. “I knew I was an average hockey player at best, but I loved officiating, loved being a part of the game.”
After college, Peel worked at a bank in New Brunswick and was transferred back to Toronto, where he caught his “big break.” He was refereeing games in the Ontario Hockey League, where officials are scouted just like players, and his performance earned him a part-time job as an NHL “trainee” in 1996.
He worked two years in the International Hockey League and two in the American Hockey League before being promoted to the NHL in 2000.
“The first exhibition game I ever did in the NHL, I had to give a penalty to Mark Messier,” Peel said. “He was such an intimidating presence, I gave him the penalty and he yelled at me the whole way to the penalty box. But then when the penalty was over, he came out and tapped me on the pants and said, ‘Welcome to the league.’”
A year later, Peel decided that he wanted to move to the U.S. He loved Canada, but enjoyed the lifestyle south of the border, so he hand-picked St. Louis based on word of mouth and moved to the Midwest.
“I knew that a lot of former athletes, primarily former Blues players, had retired in St. Louis and I was told that it would be a great place to live and raise a family,” Peel said. “Don Koharski, who was a referee in the NHL, lived here and introduced me to Kelly Chase and Tony Sansone, and within a year or two, I felt like I had lived here my whole life because between the two of them they know everybody in St. Louis. They were a huge help to me when I first moved here in adapting to a new city, where I didn’t know a lot of people.”
Chase, who had just retired from the Blues and decided to stay in St. Louis, said: “We just wanted him to feel like he was a part of the community and not be left out.”
Peel’s profession can be a lonely one at times. Officials often are the target of heavy criticism, but putting up with that, he says, is not the most challenging part of the job.
“We know there’s going to be moments throughout the game where the players or fans are frustrated with you because of a perceived missed call on their team, but we don’t let that bother us,” Peel said. “We just go out there every night with the intent of being fair and consistent, and that’s what I’ve tried to establish over my career. The toughest part of our job, honestly, is being away from home.”
Peel works 74 regular-season games per season, plus the playoffs, requiring him to be on the road 200 nights a year. The grind is especially difficult now with a wife, Tesha, whom he met in St. Louis 10 years ago, and two children — son Bronson (4) and daughter Brielle (3).
“I have a tremendous wife at home who basically raises our children,” he said.
Peel, however, wouldn’t change a thing. His job has allowed him to work an NHL All-Star Game, the Sochi Olympics and the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009.
“Everything I have is because of the National Hockey League,” he said. “I’m very grateful and in debt to them.”
Peel is even more grateful after receiving a call from Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, asking him to officiate the Winter Classic contest at Busch Stadium.
“We don’t request any games, but I’m sure he knew in the back of his mind that it would be very special for me,” he said. “It’s obviously a very special call to get. This is going to rank right up there as one of the highlights of my career for sure.”
Peel received tickets from the NHL for Tesha and the kids and said it will be special having them in attendance.
The ticket demand from others hasn’t been “too bad because I think people understand that it’s a tough ticket to get,” he said.
But that didn’t stop Peel from asking the league for more tickets after reading a story in the Post-Dispatch in mid-November about the plight of two recently paralyzed police officers — Ballwin’s Michael Flamion and Hazelwood’s Craig Tudor.
“I was flying home from Phoenix reading about the officers that were injured in the line of duty and how they became close friends because they were both rehabbing in Denver,” Peel said. “I read that article and I came home and said to my wife, ‘I need to do something for them.’ I said I’m going to try to get tickets for them and at least for a few hours take their mind off everything that they’ve been dealing with.”
Flamion and Tudor were at a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado when they got the news of Peel’s invitation and both were thrilled.
“His generosity is awesome,” Flamion said. “I’m a huge Blues fan and I think this will be an awesome Christmas present. It’s amazing that he would be willing to do something like that, and it’s an honor for him to go through what he’s going through for me so I can attend the game.”
Flamion and his wife, Sarah, returned from the hospital in November and Tudor and his wife, Christine, returned Dec. 15. The Flamions plan to attend, but the Tudors regretfully declined over concerns about Craig Tudor’s unstable blood pressure.
Peel then contacted Elizabeth Snyder, the widow of fallen St. Louis County officer Blake Snyder, to attend the game in Tudor’s place. The hope is that she can make it with her 2-year-old son, Malachi.
“These people are just going out to do their jobs everyday and their poor spouses and children don’t know if their father is going to come home from work that night,” Peel said. “It was just something that I just had a real passion to do. I know that they’re big Blues fans and so they’re very excited to come to the game and be a part of this. This is a special occasion, not just for the Blues, but for the city of St. Louis and all the sports fans. So to have these families here will be fantastic.”
To Chase, the gesture speaks volumes about Peel.
“Timmy’s got a spirit about him,” he said. “He’s an emotional guy, whether he’s reffing or he’s playing golf. But deep down, he’s got a huge heart and he’d do anything for people.
“I think it’s just one of the things that shows what hockey people are about. They strive to do the right thing and it doesn’t matter if you’re an official, a player or coach. Their values are in place.”
It’s nothing that one St. Louisan wouldn’t do for another, Peel said.
“This is home for me,” he said. “I think the people in the Midwest are just tremendous and warm people. It’s a fantastic sports city, they love their Cardinals and their Blues, and it’s just been a perfect fit for me. I’ve been here 16 years and I’ll never leave. The best thing I ever did in my life was move to St. Louis.”