Linesman Tim Nowak will be recognized for his 1500th National Hockey League Game tonight as the Florida Panthers visit the Buffalo Sabres.
Nowak’s celebration will come prior to a game in his hometown of Buffalo, and is actually game number 1514 for the veteran linesman. His 1500th game came late last season, when the focus of players and officials was on the intense games leading up to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
H’ll take the ice today alongside referees Mike Leggo and Tom Kowal and linesman Scott Driscoll.
Nowak made his NHL debut on October 8, 1993, working a game between the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. He’s also taken the ice for the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, the 2002 and 2010 Olympics, 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the 2003 NHL All-Star Game, and the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
There’s a lot of planning that goes into the celebrations of this weekend. Have you had a chance to reflect on the milestone of 1,500 NHL games and think about what it means to you?
Tim Nowak: I didn’t really think too much of it at first – I think I’m more humbled by all the people that are coming. Mr. Kelly’s coming (ECHL Commissioner Emeritus Patrick J. Kelly), and you know, I’m just flabbergasted that he’s coming. So at first I thought, ‘eh, what’s the big deal it’s just a number?’ And then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Wow, this guy’s coming…this guy’s coming…Wow!’ I guess it is a big deal. I worked in the ECHL from 1989-1993 and then got hired in 1993 by the National Hockey League, so now, it’s 23-24 years later. When you think about it, that’s a lot of years, and they fly by, and all of a sudden it adds up to 1,500.
What do you remember about your first NHL game?
Nowak: My first game in the NHL was October 8, 1993. I remember there were over 250 minutes of penalties! So here I had just left the ECHL and all of a sudden, my first NHL game had all these penalty minutes. It was New Jersey & Washington, playing in Washington, and I guess they didn’t really like each other. Luckily it smoothed out from there. I was just happy to be there. My mom and dad were able to make it for the game – I was so excited for them to be there. Now as a parent of a 15 year old daughter, I think about how excited they must have been for me.
Do you remember being really nervous – it’s your first NHL game after all – or was it business as usual once you got to the rink?
Nowak: I think everybody deals with different types of nervousness or energy. I always thought, my bosses have the confidence in me, why shouldn’t I? I always looked at it as – they’re putting me in a position to work that game, so they have the confidence in me. I try to teach my daughter, she’s a competitive dancer, ‘Just go out there and look at it as a great opportunity.’ When it’s all done, you’ll be asking yourself what you got so nervous about. So it was excitement and a little nervousness, but more excitement of ‘Wow I can’t wait to achieve this dream!’ and my Mom and Dad were there for it, so I just had to go do what I do, really.
If Mr. Kelly would’ve told you while you were working in the ECHL, that you would go on to work 1,500 NHL games, what would your reaction have been?
Nowak: Well if he told me, I would say, “Yeah!” I believed everything he said. He took great care of me. Back then, I was really the only traveling linesman, so he always made sure I always had good accommodations and a great schedule. But if anyone else would have told me, I would have just been like ‘I don’t think so, you’re crazy’. I would have said ‘I doubt it, I really doubt it’ because then I would’ve done the math and think- that’s over 20 years I’d have to work (in the NHL).
We’ve talked about the first game, and alluded to #1500, are there any other specific games during your career that stick out to you more than others?
Nowak: I was lucky enough to work the NHL Finals, and you know, that’s always reaching the pinnacle of your sport. When I worked that, Mr. Kelly was there, and it was just phenomenal to have him there for that. One specific game I remember, I worked the Salt Lake Olympics, and it was the game between Russia and Czechoslovakia. I couldn’t believe I was out there – it was amazing. It was in Salt Lake and you know, I was just amazed at how great of a game it was and I think that was probably the best hockey game I’ve ever been part of. Plus, it was an elimination game, so they were pretty intense. Besides that, my first game in Buffalo, my first year in the NHL was awesome, so many of my family and friends were there. Then the first game I worked with Kevin Collins, the first time I worked with him was in Hartford. Growing up, he was like THE KING of US Officials! I’m thinking, ‘I’m actually going to the same place to work with Kevin Collins, wow, KC and I are working together.’ He is coming this weekend too, so I’m just really glad that he’s able to make it.
What would you say is the proudest moment of your career so far?
Nowak: It’s two-fold – one is the games and everything around that, but, sitting here, thinking of this weekend, I think of all the people I’ve met along the way. I’m just blown away by some of the people. A friend of mine that is a bellman in St. Louis at the Marriott is coming (this weekend) – that’s a relationship obviously I would have never had, without hockey. But I’ve known him for 20 years now. The people that you meet along the way, they’re such great people. As far as the games, I worked a couple Olympics, a World Cup, the NHL Finals and a couple outdoor games. Those are great to be picked to do, so obviously those are up there too. I guess it’s just a culmination of everything, I just love the people that I’ve met and I’m truly humbled by all the people that are coming this weekend. I never really thought of it being a big deal at first, but I guess it is kind of a big deal. This weekend I’m going to have all the people that along the way have helped me at every level, so I’m just like ‘Wow’.
Obviously you have quite the resume of accomplishments between NHL Finals, Olympics, World Cup, Outdoor games. There are a lot of ECHL officials who would love to be in your shoes 20 years from now, but might think it’s not attainable, what kind of advice would you give to them?
Nowak: I always worried about the things I could control. I think sometimes guys get too far ahead of themselves, and instead of worrying about the process, they worry about the result. Some things you just can’t control. I just did what I had to do to get ready for the next game and that was a priority.
You’ve already alluded to a few things, but what sticks out to you most about your time working in the ECHL?
Nowak: I remember the discipline of having to get to the next city since the cities were so far apart. That’s how it was, and that’s what you did. It was a challenge, but when you got to the next city, you felt accomplished. And the time spent with Mr. Kelly when he came around was phenomenal. He took care of us, guided us and led us in the right direction, just like a coach. He put us in the best place to succeed and definitely had our best interest in mind. I loved my time in the ECHL, I really did. You have these small towns where the fans seem like they’re rooting for a big college team, but it’s an ECHL team, the fans were so passionate it was great.
If you had to go back and do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
Nowak: I don’t think I would. I had my path and I know what I wanted to do, and I think everyone has to figure out their own way of doing whatever they’re going to do in life. I was confident of my way of doing it. I always thought if you work hard, that consistency will shine through after a while, and that’s what gets noticed. Anyone can say they want to move up to the next level, but to show that you deserve it requires that consistency over time. I thought it was up to me and the job that I did. I really had that mentality that if I controlled everything I could control, then things would go my way and luckily it did.
Congratulations to linesman Tim Nowak on this milestone achievement!