The Olympic break in the NHL schedule will be upon us following the conclusion of ten games on Saturday night and players selected to represent their country will head to Sochi with their sights set on a gold medal. And I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of my experiences gained through International competition and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Seven NHL referees and six linesmen will be assigned upcoming games in Sochi by the IIHF as part of their 28-man officiating roster comprised of 14 refs and 14 linesmen. Referees Dave Jackson, Mike Leggo, Brad Meir, Tim Peel, Kevin Pollock, Kelly Sutherland and Ian Walsh will be joined by NHL linesmen colleagues Derek Amel, Lonnie Cameron, Greg Devorski, Brad Kovachik, Andy McElman and Mark Wheler. The IIHF has also selected linesmen Chris Carlson and Jesse Wilmot (Canada), along with Chris Woodworth and Tommy George (U.S.A. Hockey) to participate. Congratulations and best of luck to each of the officials selected to participate in this International showcase.
The IIHF, represented by President Rene Fasel and Officiating Manager Konstantin Komissarov, or their designates will have already briefed the current crop of officials heading to Sochi with regard to rule differences, security measures, travel procedures and many other important matters that surround the Olympic event.
Aside from the fact that it will be mostly business for the refs and linesmen once they arrive in Sochi, it is a much different world today than it was in 1998. As such, the current group of officials was strongly discouraged from having any family members join then for this Olympic event. It will be all business with heightened security measures in place!
I recall our meeting with Mr. Rene Fasel at the NHL Offices in Toronto a month or so prior to our departure for Nagano. Since this was to be the first time that professional players and officials were being allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics there was extensive information that we were provided. As we were being brought up to speed on rule differences Mr. Fasel, stated that all referees and linesmen were required to wear a helmet and visor!
My colleague Ray Scapinello raised his hand and said, "Mr. Fasel I don't wear a helmet let alone a visor." The IIHF President addressed Scapinello directly and informed him if he didn't wear a helmet and a visor he would not be working in the Olympics. 'Scampy' immediately responded with, "My helmet size is 7 1/4 - thank you, sir."
Those of us that didn't wear a helmet or visor put one in the last week or two of NHL games in an effort to adjust. As you can imagine I had a very difficult time with it. The visor gave me the feeling of being in a fishbowl. I tried various products and sizes in an attempt to get comfortable and was struggling with it until Ray Bourque helped me out in a game in Boston. He told me I looked ridiculous in the thing I was wearing and had the Bruins trainer put one of his special Oakley visors on my helmet. If nothing else, the style was more appealing and I wore it during the Olympics.
In spite of flying business class to Tokyo from North America, it was a very long haul. We were advised to drink plenty of water (limit alcohol consumption) and to get up and exercise throughout the flight in addition to sleep as much as possible. Our Japanese hosts were fantastic.
Upon arrival at Narita Airport we were personally escorted to the Bullet Train. We were then handed a ticket with a seat assignment and escorted to the platform where all passengers waited in a very orderly fashion behind a theatre-style rope. The Bullet Train pulled into the station and passengers disembarked. A cleaning crew dressed smartly in uniform and white gloves marched onto the train in single file with their brooms and dusters placed over their shoulders like rifles. They cleaned the train and then marched off in unison the same way they entered. An attendant removed the clip from the rope restrainer and the customers walked onto the train in a calm and orderly fashion, single file. For all of us that had been pushed and jostled on filthy trains throughout the North American public transit systems (especially the New York subway) this was an amazingly pleasant experience.
We rolled into the mountain region of Nagano 24 hours after our flight had departed from North America. We had one day to quickly recover, meet with our IIHF colleagues in a morning skate and then work the games. The extensive travel to get to Sochi will be a challenge for the current group of officials to overcome as well.
In a short tournament on the world stage, every game is crucial and the officials feel the pressure and demand to be at their very best. All of us had extensive Stanley Cup playoff experience (including multiple Cup Finals for several of us) but we were the new kids on the block regarding Olympic competition. The camaraderie that was quickly established between the amateur and professional officials in Nagano made for a unified group of 'zebras.'
We were able to share our officiating experience and help one another adjust to the bigger ice surface and style of play that we would encounter. We immediately gelled with our International colleagues and became a unified team.
It was obvious to me very early in the tournament that the Czechs were going to be a team to be reckoned with. They had many talented players, but unlike their dismal performance in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey where they were individualistic and disjointed, this group appeared united and going for the gold. Their captain, Vladimir "Rosey" Ruzicka (233 NHL games with Edmonton, Boston and Ottawa) hadn't played in the NHL since the 1993-94 season but was performing at an incredibly high level; one that I had never seen from him previously. He was definitely the leader of this Czech team. And of course, they had The Dominator (Dominik Hasek) in goal!
I was the backup referee for the gold medal game between Czechoslovakia and Russia. I was seated in the first row of the lower balcony beside my wife Kathy when Bill Wirtz and his wife arrived to occupy the seats beside us. The stairs were extremely steep and as Mr. Wirtz got to the railing he tripped and started to fall forward. I grabbed him by his belt and yanked hard pulling the Blackhawks owner backward into his seat before he fell over the railing. Startled, he look at me and said, "Thanks Kerry, that was a close call!"
Just before the opening puck drop, Mr. Wirtz asked me who I thought was going to win the game. I told him the Czech team had really impressed me throughout the Olympics and I thought they stood a real good chance. He said that was good info because he had laid down a large bet in Vegas for the Czech team to win. The reasoning he shared with me was that he had 'bet' against Dominik Hasek once before when he traded the goalie away from the Hawks. Mr. Wirtz said he wasn't going to bet against Hasek this time around! The Dominator shut out the Russian team and the Czechs won the gold medal.
We were a tired but jovial bunch that boarded a bus arranged by Sr. V.P. of Hockey Operations Brian Burke to transport us from Nagano back to Tokyo following the gold medal game. And Burkie was busy snapping pictures of everyone as for his Nagano album.
Following a brief sleep in the airport hotel, we boarded an early morning flight back home. Our stay at home was extremely short because the referees had to all fly to Toronto early the next morning for a meeting that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted we attend. While we were in Nagano, the Commissioner had us craft a document with referee-in-chief Bryan Lewis in an attempt to solve the ongoing obstruction crisis in the NHL.
As such, we had to jump on a plane and attend a referees-only meeting. Fortunately, those of us that had worked the Olympics were given a week off to recover from the jet lag. The meeting held in Toronto didn't prove all that productive since it wasn't until 2006 that a meaningful difference resulted in dealing with obstruction!
The Olympic experience is a highlight of everyone's career, whether as a player or as an official. I am quite sure the group working in Sochi will feel the same way. Best of luck boys and above all, please remain safe!