Long-time NHL official Frank Udvari recently passed away at the age of 90. He spent 15 years as an NHL referee and another 20 as the league’s supervisor of officials. His long and storied career took him to the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1973.
Udvari, born in Yugoslavia in 1924, emigrated to Canada as a young child. He grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, playing both hockey and baseball. Udvari eventually stepped behind the bench to coach at the local rink. When the referee didn’t show up for a game, Udvari took to the ice to officiate. He spent three years in stripes in the Ontario Hockey Association before making it to the AHL in 1951.
With referee Georges Gravel sidelined with health issues, Udvari was called up to the NHL during the 1952-53 season. Despite the steep learning curve and a few rough matches, Udvari hung in there to become one of the league’s top officials until his retirement in 1966.
“I lasted through that first year, but there were a lot of critics,” Udvari said. ” Referees were prime targets for sport writers. I can’t say it didn’t bother me. But I gradually accepted it.”
After hanging up his skates, Udvari moved to the NHL front office as supervisor of officials. He also spent many years watching over AHL officials as the league’s referee-in-chief.
Here’s a look back at his career, as remembered by sportwriters, peers, and occasionally in his own words.
The Richard Incident
From The Record:
“I remember the play like it was yesterday,” Udvari said.
On March 13, 1955, the Rocket came tearing down the ice toward the home team’s net. But Boston Bruins defenceman Hal Laycoe’s stick caught the Canadiens star above the eye, Udvari recalls.
Udvari’s arm shot up immediately, signalling a delayed penalty against Laycoe. Richard’s enraged face was crimson with gushing blood as he curled around the net and charged at Laycoe.
“I told him, ‘I got it, Rock. I got it,’ ” Udvari says. The Rocket would have none of it.
In the melee, linesman Cliff Thompson was punched by Richard. The fallout saw NHL president Clarence Campbell suspend the Rocket for the rest of the season and into the playoffs. When Campbell attended the Habs’ next game, furious fans lashed out and a riot ensued around the Montreal Forum. Cars were overturned, fires set and dozens of people were injured and arrested.
“He (Richard) didn’t talk to me for 30 years,” Udvari told The Record in May 2014.
Udvari’s Supporters — and Detractors
Long-time NHL referee Paul Stewart recalls, “He told me, ‘Remember yourself as a player, and how you felt during a game. If an opponent does something to you that you would get ticked off at, then that is a penalty. Forget all the other things about trying to read the play because you will end up over-officiating. Just feel the play.’
Hall of Famer Bobby Hull was a fan of Udvari’s on-ice work. From The Golden Jet by Bobby Hull: “Referee Frank Udvari [was] a very animated official (and a good one) who was inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
“He was one of the best,” said former Bruin Milt Schmidt. “He called an ace an ace. There is no fooling about it whatsoever. I can say this about Frank – a cleaner game was not called by anyone than when Frank was the official.”
Former Red Wing Bill Gadbsy also gave his thoughts on referees, specifically Udvari, whom he held in not-quite-as-high a regard: “We had a pretty good rapport with most referees, [but] Frank Udvari and I never did get along too good. I didn’t like him.”
Gordie Howe reportedly once told Udvari he was the second best ref in the league. “All the rest are tied for No. 1,” Howe deadpanned.
Udvari Holds a Grudge
From The Official Rules of Hockey: An Anecdotal Look at the Rules of Hockey-and How They Came to Be by James Duplacey:
[Detroit Red Wings Player Howie] Young [was] a surly and sometimes uncontrollable rookie. He was undisciplined to be sure, but Young played with such wild abandon that he became an instant crowd favorite. The rest of the NHL didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms, and neither did the on-ice officials – especially referee Frank Udvari, who wasn’t about to let any bush-leaguer run rampant in any game he controlled.
And so it came to pass that Young was spending an inordinate amount of time cooling his heels in the penalty box in games officiated by Udvari. The situation reached a point where the Red Wings wouldn’t dress Young if Udvari was scheduled to referee the game. Detroit general manager Jack Adams was not afraid to communicate his displeasure to the media. For the Wings the last straw occurred in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on February 19, 1961. Earlier in the game, Udvari had thumbed Young to the box on his first shift, a penalty that gave Montreal an early power play and a quick 1-0 lead.
Midway through the third period, with the Wings trailing the Habs 3-2, Young was fighting Henri Richard for possession of the puck behind the Wings’ net. In the struggle to gain control of the puck Young broke his stick, then slammed Richard into the glass. Udvari whistled the play dead and carded Young for playing with a broken stick – even though the damaged lumber lay in splinters by the side of the net. It seemed clear that Young had dropped his stick as soon as it broke, but Udvari’s call stood, and the Wings had to go on the defensive while Young sat in the box. The Canadiens went on to post a 4-2 win, while the Red Wings went on to post a complaint against Udvari with the NHL office. Of course, no action was taken. Udvari went on to the Hockey Hall of Fame while Young went on to set an NHL record for penalty minutes in 1962-63.
The Finer Details
On the evening of the second-to-last day of school, I was assigned to referee 10 minutes of a summer league game. The instructors would supervise our work and offer a critique. Also in attendance was Frank Udvari, a retired referee (and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee) and assistant to the NHL’s referee-in-chief, Ian “Scotty” Morrison.
After my 10-minute stint, Mr. Udvari met me in the officials’ room. He said he liked what he’d seen of my work and wanted to invite me to the NHL officials’ training camp in Toronto two days later. Since it was so soon, Frank said he would have to check with Scotty to make sure they could accommodate me.
“If I can bring you to camp,” he added, “there is one thing I must ask of you.”
“Anything, Mr. Udvari. What is it?”
He looked at my then-stylish Beatle cut that hung to the bottom of my ears and quipped, “You’ve got to get a haircut!”
Little did either of them know that Kerry Fraser would, as one of the last helmetless NHL officials, one day be famous for his hair.
A Man of His Word
From The Best of Plimpton by George Plimpton:
“[Former Bruins defenseman Eddie] Shore [then coaching with Springfield of the AHL] once got so pissed at a penalty called by the referee, a brave guy named Frank Udvari, that he pulled his whole team off the ice. The only one who did not go to the bench was Don Simmons, the goalie, who was so busy housecleaning around the net, or something, that he was not aware he had been summoned. Udvari skated over to the Indians bench and told Shore he had ten seconds to get his skaters back on the ice or he was going to drop the puck anyway. Shore turned his back on him. At this, Udvari, good to his word, dropped the puck in the [faceoff] circle. It was gathered in, of course, by the opposing team.
“Poor Simmons. He looked up from his crouch and saw I guess the ultimate goaltender’s nightmare – his whole team vanished and five of the opposition sailing down on him, the puck clacking easily from stick to stick as they came. Incredibly, the first four shots missed – maybe these guys were weak from laughing – and the last one caromed out from the boardsat an angle where Simmons was able to leap out and smother it. At this point, with the play stopped, Shore somehow got himself under control and he sent his players back out onto the ice.”
After Further Review…
“We had him in Montreal and Leo Boivin caught Maurice Richard coming into our zone and Boivin really stuck out his rear and caught him beautifully,” Boston forward Milt Schmidt recalled in an interview with The Record. “Lo and behold, I’ll be darned if Udvari didn’t call a penalty for tripping. That was not so. I never saw a better and straighter bodycheck in all my life.”
“He got a hold of me a little later on after seeing film of the hit. He told me it was a good, clean hit. He came back to me and apologized. I can honestly say this about Frank, he and Red Storey, if they ever refereed a bad game, they would let you know.”
Protection From Howe
From Dispatches from the Sporting Life by Mordecai Richler:
[Gordie] Howe’s most notorious altercation was with Ranger defenceman Lou Fontinato in Madison Square Garden in 1959. Frank Udvari, who was the referee, recalled:
“The puck had gone into the corner. Howe had collided with Eddie Shack behind the net and lost his balance. He was just getting to his feet when here’s Fontinato at my elbow, trying to get at him.”
“‘I want him,’ he said.
‘Leave him alone, use your head,’ I said.
‘I want him.’
‘Be my guest.’
Fontinato charged. Shedding his gloves, Howe seized Fontinato’s jersey at the neck and drove his right fist into his face. “Never in my life had I heard anything like it, except maybe the sound of somebody chopping wood,” Udvari said. “Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”
Howe broke Fontinato’s nose, fractured his cheekbone, and knocked out several teeth. Plastic surgeons had to reconstruct his face.
The First Octopus
From Hockey (Best Sport Ever) by Marty Gitlin:
In 1952, the Detroit Red Wings had swept the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup semifinals. They then beat the Montreal Canadiens in the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals. So before Game 4, two Red Wings fans came up with a plan for good luck. Brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano tossed a small, dead octopus onto the ice. Each of its eight tentacles represented a playoff victory – and the Wings already had seven.
The octopus landed next to referee Frank Udvari. “[Udvari’s] face turned white and he backed away from it like it was a hand grenade,” Pete Cusimano recalled. But the Red Wings won the game – and the Stanley Cup.
A Break for Scampy
From Ray Scapinello’s Between the Lines: Not-So-Tall Tales From Ray “Scampy” Scapinello’s Four Decades in the NHL:
[In] 1970, Scampy earned an invitation to an NHL rookie officials’ camp on the recommendation of Hall-of-Fame referee Frank Udvari. Udvari didn’t know Scampy; he invited the young Guelphite purely because of Ray’s work on the ice. Scotty Morrison, the NHL’s Referee-in-Chief under Clarence Campbell, ran the camp and invited twenty to twenty-five young hopefuls.
“Frank Udvari gave me my break. He went to bat for me. He had Scotty Morrison’s ear,” Scampy reflects. “He was a supervisor who told Morrison to keep his eye on me. He was a Kitchener guy, well respected by coaches and GMs in the NHL.”
An Unexpected Return to the Ice
From Who’s Who In Hockey by Stan Fischler:
[In 1978], during a game at Nassau Coliseum, Udvari, who had become supervisor of NHL officials in 1966, was watching from the press box when referee [Dave Newell] was injured and had to leave the game. Udvari borrowed a pair of skates and a striped referee’s sweater, although he still wore his suit pants. He officiated the rest of the game and showed he had not lost his refereeing touch.
Those skates came from Islanders forward Bryan Trottier, who would have a goal waved off by Udvari later in the game.
The Contested Cup-Winning Goal
From Legends of the Detroit Red Wings: Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay, and Other Red Wings Heroes by Richard Kincaide:
Alex Delvecchio: “We had tied Game Six [against Montreal]] 2-2 at the Olympia after being down two-nothing and we go to overtime and Henri Richard slides into the net and gets the winning goal. Well, the funny part of that was we didn’t even have a chance to argue the point. Referee Frank Udvari took off right away. Once it was scored he was gone off the ice, he and the officials. And we were just left standing around and we had nobody to bitch about it to.
But, of course, I guess, you think of it later, ‘What’s the bitching going to do? He’s not going to change his deal.’ Now, I mean, if they had replay, that’s no goal. It shouldn’t have been. It shouldn’t have been. It’s a hell of a way to lose a Stanley Cup!”
Sending a Message
From Now You Know Hockey: The Book of Answers by Doug Lennox:
In hockey, the War of 1812 refers to the Toronto-Montreal game of December 9, 1953, when a bench-clearing brawl exploded at 18:12 of the third period and referee Frank Udvari gave out 18 misconduct penalties and two major penalties evenly shared between the two clubs. That left each team with a goalie, three skaters, and no players on the bench for the final 1:48 of the match.
A Teachable Moment
I had seen a defenseman mug a guy by grabbing him around the neck in front of the net. I called a minor for holding. Then the player got thrown down and punched… I didn’t make the second call trying to manage the game instead of refereeing it. To be honest, everything dissolved into a ****fest from then until the end of the period.
In between periods, Frank came down to our room, walked into the bathroom and stalked back out. I waited expectantly. The tension was thick. Finally, he started. Frank literally backed me up against the wall and poked his finger right in my chest.
He sneered, “If you don’t have the guts to make that second penalty call on a player down here, how the hell do you think you’ll have the guts to make it up in the NHL?”
Then he turned and left. Frank was right and I learned a valuable lesson right then and there: Be the referee for 60 minutes. Have guts. To hell with what anyone else thinks, because you are the one being paid to judge.
Udvari’s Advice for Aspiring Refs
“Work as many games as you can — at all levels. It’s all about getting experience,” Udvari said in a recent interview. “Don’t second guess yourself. You have to make your call right away.”
A Career Well-Spent
“I was the luckiest guy in the world,” Udvari recalls of his career.
The league was lucky to have you, Frank. Udvari will be missed. He will also be remembered.
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