Trying to keep their memories alive, NHL referees and linesman perform a ritual before every game at center-ice to pay tribute to two linesmen, Stephane Provost and John D’Amico, who died during the lockout.
By Michael Russo
Originally published in 2005
Pierre Racicot used to look forward to that 250-mile trek across Alligator Alley and up the west coast of Florida to Tampa.
The four-hour drive went by in a snap because in the passenger seat was his best friend, fellow NHL linesman Stephane Provost.
From their homes in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston, the Montreal natives talked about everything from their wives and children to life in general to hockey.
They shared so many laughs, tears would come to their eyes.
Racicot’s not able to make that drive any more.
Tears come to his eyes.
“I’ve driven it once and I’m not doing it again,” Racicot said. “It’s too hard. I’m flying this year. The drive is not the same. That drive used to be fun. Now it feels like a 10-hour drive. We did it together for so many years and so many games, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Last April during the lockout, the NHL officiating fraternity, a tight brotherhood of 43 referees and 34 linesmen, were devastated to learn that Provost, an always-smiling, charismatic, side-splittingly funny man who simply loved hockey, was killed in a motorcycle accident a mile from his house.
Provost, who worked 700 NHL games in 10 years, was 37 and left behind a wife and two young daughters.
Five weeks later, the officials suffered another loss when the legendary John D’Amico, a Hall of Fame linesman who worked a record 20 Stanley Cup Finals, died at age 67 after a long battle with leukemia and bone cancer.
“The lockout was a long year for us emotionally and financially,” said 39-year-old referee Tim Peel. “But to get that phone call that we lost Stephane, it really shook our guys up. It’s the first time we’ve ever lost somebody on the ice that we were still working with. And then to lose John, it was just too much to bear.”
When the 17-month lockout ended and the officials reunited at training camp, former referee Stephen Walkom, who had been promoted to director of officiating, began the healing process.
The officials sat in a dark, quiet room and watched videos, set to music, of Provost and D’Amico.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Walkom said. “It was sad but real necessary.”
Provost and D’Amico had a passion for the sport, and especially their jobs. That’s why the fraternity was determined to pay tribute to both men throughout the season.
Veteran referee Rob Shick orchestrated a ritual that’s done immediately before the opening faceoff of all 1,230 NHL games. It happens so fast, unless you actually look for it, you’ll probably miss it.
In a circle at center ice, the four men in stripes congregate.
They tap their left arms — the No. 72 on their shoulder — a tribute to Provost. They tap the NHL crest over their hearts, a tribute to D’Amico. They then squeeze their fists together, a tribute to the entire officiating fraternity before declaring this year’s motto, “Together Forever!”
“I know fans probably don’t have any idea what we’re doing, but it’s important for us,” Peel said. “I remember at Steph’s funeral, 75 men were there crying our eyes out for two days. You really saw what each one of us meant to each other.
Following In His Father’s Footsteps
Angelo D’Amico used to travel with his father as a kid, but he never aspired to follow in dad’s footsteps. After working 97 games the past three years, D’Amico is in his first year as a full-time NHL linesman.
Until his father died, D’Amico never realized just how much the man dubbed “the Wayne Gretzky of linesmen” meant to the sport and officiating fraternity. Young officials looked up to John D’Amico. He had the respect of players, coaches and general managers.
“I’ve learned a lot about my father since he died,” Angelo said. “Even when I got into the league, my relationship with him was a parent-son type thing. Even growing up, I was too young to realize what he achieved.
“But to hear the stories from officials and coaches and players, it’s just unbelievable, and I lived with the guy. I guess I never looked at my father like these guys did. He had such a successful career.”
A Career Cut Short
Provost was in the midst of a successful career himself, and the 2005-06 season is dedicated to his memory with his smiling face on the home page of www.nhlofficials.com.
His death hit the fraternity excruciatingly hard, not just because his colleagues adored him, but also because he was so young with a young family.
“I told [Provost’s wife] Sandra during the holidays, ‘I can’t believe how strong and good you’ve been.’” Racicot said. “After three or four months, when the bulk of the raw emotions and gut-wrenching trauma were over, she picked up and said, ‘I’ve got these two girls.’”
Racicot, 38, a respected linesman who will officiate at next month’s Olympics in Italy, said the Officials’ Association and NHL have offered Sandra, and daughters, Ashley and Reily, constant support.
When officials visit South Florida to work Florida Panthers games, the first person they call is Sandra to take her to lunch.
“She loves hearing stories about Steph,” Racicot said. “Sandra appreciates everything. It’s so comforting.”
When Provost died, several officials were angry because if not for the lockout, Provost would have probably been somewhere working a playoff game.
“I thought that for a split moment,” Peel said. “But we can’t blame hockey not being played. I’m a big believer in things happen for a reason. It’s the cards that are dealt to us.”
Racicot struggles with the personal and professional void in his life. He and Provost talked twice a day. They lived a mile apart. Their families had a weekly dinner together. Anything that happened on the ice, they shared.
“Some days are really, really hard,” he said. “I lost not only a colleague, but I lost my French connection, my buddy. It was the person that I was closest to. I was closer to him than any family member.
“I’m looking at pictures right now, and we were always laughing, even on the ice. It’s not just me who misses him. Steph was a goof around everybody.”
Gone But Not Forgotten
Provost and D’Amico are missed but not forgotten.
“We’re always thinking about them,” Angelo D’Amico said.
Before games in the officials’ room, stories of both men are retold over and over. There are laughs. There are tears.
Their losses symbolize the officiating fraternity.
“We’re a team,” Walkom said. “Teams change. As their deaths showed us, you may be taken out of the game for one reason or another. But while you’re here, enjoy each other and work for each other and you’ll be rewarded and the game will be rewarded.”