By Mark Lichtenfeld. Originally published at LetsPlayHockey.com:
Getting an assignment to work the Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp seemed cool on paper. As far as I knew, I’d be officiating games consisting of middle-aged adults, with the off-chance of maybe seeing The Great One if he happened to show during my assigned games. And even though I was working nearly 12 hours daily for my real job, I had to squeeze in the Gretzky camp, just to see what was going on.
Arriving at the Ice Center at 11 a.m., on an 80-degree Tuesday morning, I quickly peeked into the North Rink to see what was happening. Guys in Oilers jerseys of course. But then, my gaze was automatically directed to a referee. A helmetless zebra – with a nameplate on his back.
Hoggarth, it said.
My brain flashbacked 25 years. Then, I saw the guy’s face. There was no doubt, even before I locked on the NHL patch.
What was going on? It couldn’t be. So I checked back at the South Rink
No way. Another helmetless referee. An NHL patch.
Insane. Impossible. These NHL vets skating on the same choppy surface hosting my late-night lumberjack leagues.
Time was racing. I still had to dress. Off to the ratty officials’ room.
Ten minutes later, Marouelli walks in. And then Hoggarth. In the local guys’ room. As if they belonged.
Shocked, I maintained just enough composure to introduce myself. Both referees were donning their official NHL sweaters. They knew it was cool. But there wasn’t the slightest air of haughtiness. Hockey guys, of course.
Naturally, being the OS writer, I wanted to get their takes on the game. Meaning officiating, of course.
Now most OS readers know this column abhors the standardization of linesman in particular. You know, the 6-foot robots with half-aquariums on their heads and not a hint of expression either.
I mentioned this to Hoggarth. He totally agreed. He explained that when the NHL stripped the officials of their nameplates, they took away their personalities in the process. And Marouelli concurred it was a shame. Which means there will never be guys like Ray Scapinello racing through the ranks. The league has become too corporate. Standardized. Andy Van Hellemond winking at the camera on national TV? Never again. Television and social media killed the fun.
Continuing my inquiry, I asked the guys about the four-official system. I told them that’s also taken away the flair of the game. You know, the referee hustling up-and-down the ice for all he’s worth. It made the game appear even faster. And it was great to have one official in charge.
Marouelli, agreed, but said two referees became a necessity because of the size of players. “There just isn’t enough room to maneuver,” he explained, which totally makes sense. And Hoggarth, breaking into the league in 1971, really understood the dilemma. Guys now average six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. But the rink dimensions never changed.
To my dismay, the first game of my doubleheader was scheduled as a two-man. Me and another veteran. No NHL referee. But what looked boring on the schedule turned fantastic real quick.
Skating pre-game, I’m slogging through the neutral zone when the players start coming onto the ice. I’m seeing weird names on the jerseys. You know, Carbonneau, Hull, Savard. I skate up to the guy with the Savard #18 uniform. He’s got a half-cage. Whatever. It’s a fantasy camp – players want to imitate their heroes.
I beam through the mask. I see the piercing eyes. The scar on the chin.
“It’s you!” I exclaim. “I’m from Chicago. Had season tickets in the 80’s.”
“That’s great,” says Savard, all smiles.
“You’ve got to do a spin-o-rama,” I plead. “Like that one in the playoffs against the North Stars.”
“Oh you should have seen yesterday’s game,” he says. “Fooled a guy right out of his pants.”
Turns out my first game fielded an NHL all-star team vs. a camp participant’s team which also included an additional five NHL stars. I’m talking Ed Mio in goal with a mask out of the 1960s. Dave Semenko looking ferocious with an Oilers stocking cap. Brett Hull on wing. Haley Wickenheiser on defense. And Marty McSorley and Grant Fuhr behind the bench.
And there I am, getting the centers lined up for the opening drop.
That’s Guy Carbonneau on my right. I’m about to drop the rubber for Carbonneau.
You can see what type of day this was going to be. And it was great.
But there was another game, too. A semi-final between two teams of non-NHL camp participants.
And to my good fortune, the next slot was scheduled for a three-man. Me and another local guy on the lines.
And Dan Marouelli in the middle.
OK, that’s about as close to the NHL as I could possibly get. And the best part was that this was a tough, fast-paced game, not a snowflake scrimmage. Marouelli had to be sharp. And he was. He skated smooth, always in position and skating smart. He was vocal, ordering guys to play clean, to watch the lane – no doubt the same way he would holler at guys in the NHL. He was totally into the game, yet barely breaking a sweat (that I could see), even as the middle guy.
But the best part was that he called the game the way I like. He let the guys play. He didn’t call certain infractions that a younger ref would have definitely whistled down. He set the standard early and no one had any beefs.
And he let my partner and I know that we hustled well. That meant a lot.
It was probably the best adult game I have ever seen in this town.
Returning to the refs room, Hoggarth was there, preparing for the next game. But these NHL refs, being old-time hockey guys, weren’t through. Suddenly, Hoggarth is taking out 8 x 10 action shots of him pointing at Gretzky in a 1990 Kings game, and he’s personally autographing the pictures for us local refs. He even signed my gold-covered USA Hockey rulebook. And in the middle of all this, Mike Krushelnyski busts into our room and brings in a half-dozen beers and five Stanley Cup rings which he lets us all try on. And then Pat Flatley trots in and introduces himself. I probably shocked him when I said I always watched the Islander games on WOR when he and Pat LaFontaine came up.
OK, I never did get to meet to Gretzky. But he didn’t forget us. All of the local referees working the camp were invited to the Thursday night gala at the Bellagio. And it was unreal. There were at least 50 NHL stars there, including Hoggarth and Marouelli. I’m talking Jari Kurri, Bernie Nicholls, Ray Whitney, Mike Keenan, etc.
Gretzky and his father were keynote speakers, of course. They were the headliners. But the fact that we were invited, with wives, was a testament to old-style hockey mentality. No one’s head gets away from them.
What an experience. Naturally, the paying campers had a great time at the Fantasy League, but the truth is that us local referees couldn’t have had a better experience.
Even if some of us didn’t get to skate with Gretzky.
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Officially Speaking is originally published at LetsPlayHockey.com –
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Reprinted with permission.