Referee Kelly Sutherland has had a terrific career. From his beginnings in British Columbia as the son of a referee, Sutherland worked his way up to the NHL, where’s he’s donned the stripes for the past 15 years. He’s been on the ice for both silver and gold, having worked the Cup Finals and the Gold Medal Game at the Winter Olympics. Most recently, Sutherland was selected to take the ice for the 2015 Winter Classic in Washington, D.C.
We caught up with him after a busy week that included the Winter Classic, a penalty-fest in Dallas, and a trip out west.
Scouting The Refs: Taking the ice in front of 42,832 fans at Nationals Park has to be an incredible feeling. What were you thinking going into the game?
Kelly Sutherland: I hadn’t done an outdoor game yet, though I’ve done a lot of big games in the past. It’s always cool to be this far in your career and have something completely brand new, unknown to you, to experience. I was really excited. A lot of nights you know what your job is – you’ve got the same routine you always do – but this was something completely new for me. It was exciting. It was like being a young ref again, going into a new building for the first time. It really had me really excited to work.
STR: Was there anything different about working an outdoor game?
KS: It was so different because the fans were so far away and the rink really felt a lot smaller, a lot tighter. Even though the fans weren’t on you, you knew there was just a massive amount of people watching.
Something would happen, like there’d be a hit on the ice and usually, when you’re in a regular NHL building, the roar of the crowd is instant. In this one, it was like a rolling thunder with everyone so far away. There’d be a hit and the roar was three seconds later. It was weird. It was like ‘How come nobody’s reacting to that?’ and the roar comes after. That was different than an NHL building.
It was neat to walk out to the ice – it was a long walk. You’re looking up at one point and the sun’s in your eyes. You’re almost getting a sunburn from working a game.
They put on a great event. The ice was good; the weather conditions were great. It was just a truly great experience. I hope the league can top that. That’s a tough game to top. I think it was probably fun to watch, too.
STR: From the stands, it was a great game. How’d it feel on the ice?
KS: Chicago and Washington aren’t bitter rivals, but they played like they were rivals. It was mean out there and testy. It was not your regular ‘just go out there and skate’ for two teams that play each other twice all year. It had an edge to it. It was fun. I think that’s what made it an even better game, too, because there were a lot of players angry at the opposition there. I like games that are on edge like that. It makes you be at your sharpest. You almost forget you’re in the big venue of the Winter Classic because you have a job to do and those guys were going at it pretty good.
Nothing but a positive experience. It was truly fun to work. It was nice to get really excited for a game like that.
STR: We got a closer look at the coaches and some of their interactions with officials thanks to the Road to the NHL Winter Classic on EPIX. They both seemed to be quite vocal at the Winter Classic, especially Caps’ head coach Barry Trotz, who seemed to be yelling a bit more than usual.
KS: I’ve got all the time in the world for Barry Trotz. He’s first class. Barry usually doesn’t get so emotional on the bench, but it was good. It was a big event. It was emotion and that’s what we want in the game. The same with Quenneville – Quenneville’s great. Joel’s a pretty intense guy. You want people who are into the game. That’s what fans want to see. I get along with both those coaches great. I’ve got all the time in the world for both of them. They’re into the game, they’re trying to get an edge. The funny thing is, Barry, in the regular games, you never hear him. He had a lot more to say the other day. He was emotional, he wanted to win, and, hey, you can’t fault him for that.
STR: Have you had a chance to watch the Road to the Winter Classic?
KS: The game was truly enjoyable to work, especially the way they build it up over the weeks. I like how the league has had 24/7 and now Road to the NHL Winter Classic. That just adds to it. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t watch any of that leading up to the game. I’ll watch it all now that the game is over and done with. I wanted to go in like it’s still a regular game, even though it’s not – it’s a bigger highlighted game, a bigger spectacle. Hey, we’ve got penalties to call, we’ve got this to do. You don’t want to get overwhelmed by the big stage.
I didn’t watch any of the EPIX stuff, but I’m going to start watching it now that it’s over. Just having that gets the fans, the whole league, everybody just so in tune, it’s almost like the Superbowl of hockey. We have that and now we’ll go down the stretch here to get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
STR: You mentioned the big spectacle of the Winter Classic. How do you feel about the league’s outdoor games?
KS: It’s just a great product that the league has put on. There’s not another major sport that has something halfway through their season that everybody wants to stop and watch, whether you’re an avid hockey fan or not. There’s a lot of people watching that may not normally watch hockey. It’s really cool in the middle of January. Those are kind of like your dog days, where guys are starting to get tired and can’t get hyped up for games. The Winter Classic games and the Stadium Series games, they really build fans’ interest too. Midway through the year, people look forward to that.
Next we’ve got the Stadium Series game coming up in San Jose. The league is so smart. They’ve got events throughout the regular season that people look forward to. They’ve really hit home runs with the Winter Classic and Stadium Series games. You wouldn’t want to overdo it because it’s a special event, so you only have a couple a season. It’s fun to watch and it definitely is a very enjoyable part of the schedule.
STR: The league also has another midseason event, the All-Star Game. Has the Winter Classic surpassed that in terms of excitement?
KS: The All-Star Game is fun, but these are real games – real games in a different environment. I knew it was going to be good, but it exceeded my expectations of a really great event. I want to work more when they come up down the road. It’s just tough to beat those conditions. Washington put on a great show. It’s a great stadium. Great everything. I don’t know how you improve on that. It was really a great event.
STR: Once that final whistle blows and the teams leave the ice, it’s right back to the regular routine for the officials. You went right from the Winter Classic to the Dallas Stars taking on the Minnesota Wild.
KS: Tim Nowak was one of the linesmen [in that game] and he also worked the Winter Classic. It was different to go from that huge venue [to an indoor arena]. It felt like we were back in a tiny little building again. Funny to say that when you’ve got 20,000 fans, but it was funny. We both thought it felt so enclosed.
STR: As far as the game itself, that was a bit of a throwback as well. The two teams combined for 92 minutes in penalties, with 39 to Minnesota’s Stu Bickel who was ejected from the game.
KS: Oh yeah, that was a little bit of old time hockey! That doesn’t happen too much anymore.
STR: You’ve worked some amazing games over the years, including the deciding game of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and the Gold Medal Game of the 2014 Winter Olympics. What would you say was your most memorable game?
KS: The Stanley Cup Finals are truly, truly tough to beat. That experience when you’re doing the game, especially an overtime game that wins the Cup. I remember that Patrick Kane goal. It happened so quick and was a weird shot. Nobody really knew it was in for a couple seconds. That Chicago vs. Philadelphia series, that was my first Stanley Cup Final so that was a memorable one. Then you go another year and you’ve got Boston vs. Vancouver in a very tough, very mean series. Truly, the Stanley Cup Finals are the pinnacle. They’re the best.
STR: With all these great games, you should be really proud of the career you’ve put together and what you’ve accomplished. How did it all begin?
KS: Like most Canadian kids growing up, you want to play and you want to make the NHL. I used to go watch my father officiate games. He worked high levels of amateur hockey, but he never got to the pros or junior leagues. Around 11 years old, I used to go watch him and the people he hung out with and see things from their perspective. It was weird. Nobody liked these guys but they went out there, they did their jobs, and they were the nicest people. All the people he ever worked with and here I am, this young kid thinking, ‘Wow, these guys are just great people.’
I was still playing, but I was also refereeing on the side to make a little bit of money. Believe me, it wasn’t much, but, hey, you’re only 11 or 12 years old and you’re getting extra ice time to skate on weekends and you get to be involved in a lot of hockey. Around 16, it was looking like I just wasn’t good enough as a player to pursue a decent junior career. I was approached [about officiating]. I’d gone to some officiating schools from the time I was 14, but really started going to serious schools at 17. The NHL had officiating scouts there who gave me some positive feedback about pursuing a career in officiating. I was 18 when I really stopped playing hockey. There was nobody who just quit hockey and wanted to pursue officiating at that young an age, or saying, ‘ I want to be an NHL referee’ at that time in the 80s.
I remember being 18 refereeing leagues with 25 and 26-year-olds. It was junior hockey, Junior B, Junior A. There was real fighting back then. It was just brawls after brawls every week. It was great experience. I learned how to deal with violent situations and people older than me. I got put in the middle of a bunch of tough situations, but I had really good support back then.
It’s like being a player. You get scouted in every league, try and become the top guy in those leagues, and just keep moving up. By the time I was 24, I went to my first NHL training camp and then I worked in the minor leagues. At 29, the NHL signed me to a contract.
STR: You’re on pace to hit a big milestone next season: 1,000 games. Did you ever expect to make it this far, with the Olympics, Cup Finals, and getting close to the thousand-games mark?
KS: That’s obviously your goal, right? You want to work in all these things. Like I said, I’ve had those events, but you still want more. They’re addictive. There’s a ton of pressure, but that’s why we’re in this business. You want to be the best. You want to be able to compete. Players compete by scoring goals and winning games. We compete by trying to be the referees in all the biggest games, and that’s what keeps you going. When you lose that, it’s probably time to hang up the skates. We have that competitive drive in us.
The cool thing about the officiating staff with the NHL is that we all want to work the Stanley Cup Final but we’re a real tight brotherhood. The last couple of years I haven’t gone on to the Final. You’re upset at yourself for a minute, but then you look at who’s working it. The first thing that I’ll do is send those guys an email or give them a phone call to say congratulations and to tell them to keep it going for the team. The best people who are working at the time, they’re the ones who represent the whole team. That’s how our guys think.
It’s a real tight crew of guys. It’s a special team to be a part of. As a player, I don’t remember being on a hockey team that had as many guys that were all like brothers. It’s a special team. When a new guy comes in, especially guys that have had a playing career – maybe they’ve been drafted or maybe they played Major Junior or some American League – when they come into this, one thing a lot of them say is ‘Wow, this is a tight team. We never knew that as a player how tight the officials are.’ That’s one thing I’m proud to be part of.
You want to work the Final every year but it’s almost impossible now. You see guys do back-to-back [Finals], they’re working from September all the way through most of June. Then you’ve only got two months to recover for the next season, not only physically but mentally. You’re away from your family so much. It’s very tough when you see a guy go on a stretch of doing two or three Finals in a row. It was hard in the old days, too, but I don’t think the competition at the top of the referees was as intense and as close. There’s a lot of really good officials.
STR: There certainly are a lot of great officials in the league, but one of them is working his last season. What are your thoughts on Paul Devorski retiring?
KS: Very sad. I’m going to miss him. He’s a phenomenal person, outstanding referee. What a career. From day one, 15 years ago when I first came into the league, he just made you feel so comfortable working with him. He just was a super person; super to work with on the ice. I compare it to a player who got to come in the league and play with maybe a Mario Lemieux or somebody that just really took care of you. That’s what Devo always did. He made you feel good every night, on and off the ice. Easy guy. Very easy partner to work with. A true team guy. We’re going to miss him. That’s a tough one.
STR: One thing I’d never though I’d see was Devo wearing a visor.
KS: Have you looked at it closely, though? He’s got it up so high it’s hilarious. He may even have it higher than Kronwall of Detroit. We call them forehead protectors.
He’s just a cool guy. He’s fun, he’s cool , and very good at this job. A lot of that was as one referee too. He’s had a remarkable career.
STR: Obviously much has changed over the course of his career, as well as yours.
KS: The game is so much faster than it even was ten years ago. Every year we come back and see [the players] get faster and stronger. It’s truly incredible. I always say to fans, ‘You can watch it on TV but try sitting at the glass and seeing how fast and how amazing these athletes are.’ They get stronger every year. It’s good. It’s great for the game.
STR: After a busy week, you’ve got the day off tomorrow. How do you spend those rare days off at home?
KS: I’ll try and spend all the time with the family. You’ve still got to go to the gym. The gyms on the road aren’t as good as the ones at home, for the most part. You’ve still got to try and get some workouts in on your days off at home. It’s tough on game days and when you’re traveling to get in quality workouts, so I’ll try and fit that in amongst the visits with the family. It’ll just be nice to see the kids. We’ll have a nice dinner tonight and then I’ll be gone for a week again.
STR: Any other hobbies when you’ve got a little more time away from the rink?
KS: I’m on the road so much, I like just sitting at home with the family, watching a movie, and just relaxing. When the weather gets better, I love to golf. When I’m not working out or spending time with the family, I’m on the golf course.
STR: Any favorite movies?
KS: I’m more into the action ones. I like Training Day with Denzel Washington. That’s a great one. I love military movies and cop movies, like Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker. Those are my ideal movies but once in a while you’ve got to bite the bullet and watch some romantic ones with the wife. Keep everything smooth.
As a man who makes his career keeping the peace on the ice, it’s not surprising to see he’s doing it at home. Good call, ref.