[Editor’s Note: The 2010-11 season will be Bill McCreary’s last as an official in the National Hockey League. McCreary will call his final regular season game in Washington D.C., the same place his career began in 1984. Guest Contributor Brooks Bratten (Twitter: @bnbratten) spoke with the veteran referee and others about McCreary’s career and the lasting impact had on the game of hockey.]
It is one of, if not the most, thankless job in sport. The referee. There is perhaps no single word that garners more hatred and disgruntlement from sports aficionados.
It is impossible to be involved in sport and agree with the men and women in the stripes and whistles all of the time; for some, they tend to spend every waking moment in disagreement with the officials’ rulings.
On over 2000 separate occasions in the National Hockey League during the last 26 seasons, Bill McCreary has been the recipient of profanity-laced tirades from coaches, players and fans, and has taken it all in stride. Sometime in early April of this, the 2010-11 campaign, McCreary will flip the puck, then drop it for the final time.
“I’m quite happy when my last game will be taking place, but I still think there’s going to be mixed emotions,” McCreary said, “because after 29 years it’s all you’ve known in your life and its coming to an abrupt halt. That being said, with a month to go, winding down very quickly, you’re starting to realize, at least I’m starting to realize and accept that yes it is coming to an abrupt end.”
That abrupt end will occur soon enough, and when it does happen, McCreary will be as ready as anyone can be for an occasion such as the one that is fast approaching for him and his family.
“Well I think there’s going to be a lot of mixed emotions. My wife and I, and my daughter, we’re all prepared for this retirement, meaning that it’s not like its being forced on us because it certainly wasn’t,” said McCreary.
The desire to make it to the National Hockey League doesn’t typically start in this fashion, and McCreary is no exception. He was a hockey player growing up, and had dreams of making it to stardom in that capacity. As he became older and wiser however, McCreary realized that there wouldn’t be any silver lining to speak of if he continued on this path.
“I played junior hockey and I wasn’t a very good player. I certainly wasn’t even good enough to be drafted so that shows you the lack of talent I had as a player,” McCreary said.
McCreary found officiating with the help of some recommendations by men he would one day take over for.
“I was able to get involved in officiating in Guelph, Ontario where I’m from in Canada, and there was a lot of people that had worked in the NHL or who were working in the NHL at the time that belonged to our local officials association, and they encouraged me along with a good friend of mine, Terry Finley, to get involved in officiating,” McCreary explained.
From there, McCreary found a side of the game that offered him another opportunity to remain involved in hockey.
“I started at the grassroots with the little league kids and I just loved it,” said McCreary. “It was a great way to give something back to the game, working with young children, and it snowballed from there.”
McCreary had already been in the game for years as a player, and that helped to make the transition from one side of the whistle to the other quite smooth. Gradually, more prominent assignments came, and eventually, he got the call.
“I could skate, which was one of my assets, and I understood the game which was another huge asset from playing it, even though I wasn’t very good at it. I think you’re just at the right place at the right time, and a job became available and Scotty Morrison, in 1982, hired me,” McCreary said.
His first NHL contest took place in 1984, and he has been a policeman on skates ever since. Thick skin is a must for officials, and McCreary learned how to deal with irate coaches and players over the years in order to survive and thrive in the pressure packed atmosphere that is professional sports.
“I’ve always used two words in my vocabulary when I’m officiating, and that is to keep that game fair and safe,” McCreary said. “Don’t get into an argument because it serves no purpose. You can never win, and usually if you keep your emotions in check, you will bring their level of anxiety down, and you can get through the situation.”
He has done a lot more than just get through the situation. A veteran of close to 300 Stanley Cup Playoff games and Winter Olympic Games as well, McCreary has been depended upon to be there when the contests matter most. One of his proudest accolades is to be chosen year after year to advance into the playoffs, and more often than not, all the way to the final series.
“I’ve been selected by 4 different management teams to work the Stanley Cup Finals, so to me that shows, I believe, that I’ve been fairly consistent in my work ethic and my calling of the games over the years,” said McCreary. “I think that’s one of the biggest things I’m very proud of.”
That pride that brings out the best in McCreary shines through in the most important of moments in the National Hockey League. The Stanley Cup Finals are something that undoubtedly holds a plethora of memories for the veteran official.
“To be able to work in the Stanley Cup Finals is a huge honor, and then once you’re in the Stanley Cup Final, to be assigned the final game is incredible,” McCreary acknowledged. “I know that I’ve been very, very lucky; 10 of them, I’ve worked 15 Stanley Cup Finals, and I believe it’s 10 or maybe 11 times that I’ve watched the Cup being presented in the final game, so it’s a huge honor.”
In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that other than officiating, family is McCreary’s passion. His wife is always included in the decisions that are made in the career as to when to retire, and how the couple is preparing for the final game.
McCreary’s daughter has also played into his career, providing him with his signature puck drop. Prior to the opening faceoff to a game, McCreary will settle into the circle and before slapping the vulcanized rubber to the ice, will flip it straight up in the air, catch it, and then drop it down. He doesn’t do it for flare as some may suspect; it’s all about family.
“Our daughter had a stroke when she was five years old, so she spent some considerable time in Sick Kids Children’s Hospital in Toronto,” McCreary recalls. “We obviously had a TV for her, and for dad to say ‘hi’ to her while I was away traveling doing my games, we decided that if I flipped the puck that was me saying ‘hi’ to her. It’s something that started, she’ll be 21 in April, so 16 years ago, and I’ve continued it ever since. It’s been special to me and I think it’s been special to her.”
One of McCreary’s colleagues on the ice, veteran referee Don VanMassenhoven, echoed the sentiments of McCreary’s character. The ex-policeman couldn’t narrow down one attribute that makes McCreary stand out, instead listing several.
“The decency and respect he shows to other human beings would be one of the most important,” said VanMassenhoven. “His professionalism and dedication to his career, but even more importantly to Bill, his family.”
VanMassenhoven recalls spending time with McCreary on the ice, and how he helped to shape VanMassenhoven’s playoff stature.
“My very first year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was 1999,” explained VanMassenhoven. “I was selected to go right to the Conference Finals and Bill was my partner for all of my Conference Final games that first year in the playoffs. What a thrill for me to work with such a quality official at such an important time of the year. He was great to work with and I learned so much.”
Even those who have never interacted with McCreary on the ice realize the caliber of official he is. Steve Mears, host of “Pittsburgh Penguins Live” and “Inside Penguins Hockey,” believes that McCreary is at the top in his profession.
“He’s one of the greatest of all time,” Mears said. “When you look at his resume, the amount of big games he was trusted to officiate by the NHL, and you look at 30 years of service to the game, that’s some amazing stuff there with all the accomplishments.”
Brian Metzer of XM Radio and FromThePoint.com also agrees that McCreary is one of the best ever, and recognizes his communication abilities as a reason for the praise.
“One thing that I have always heard about Bill McCreary is that he is a great communicator,” said Metzer. “He is always talking to the players and coaches and is willing to explain his point of view or his reasoning for making a given call.”
Mike Colligan of Forbes.com and TheHockeyWriters.com also believes the McCreary’s communication skills set him apart.
“What made McCreary so successful was his ability to communicate with all participants over the course of a game,” explained Colligan. “Players may not have agreed with a penalty, but they at least knew he would call it consistently both ways. Coaches may not have understood why something was called, but they respected McCreary because he was always able to explain his reasoning. Referees will always make mistakes, but that mutual respect is so important.”
Mears believes that McCreary is so good because of his uncanny ability to be consistent and fair over the years. It’s difficult for Mears to pick out a memory of McCreary, and that is a testament to his officiating skill and controlling of the game.
“He did a fine job which was time and time again on the ice,” said Mears. “When they [the officials] do a good job, you never know; you might realize a great officiating job that night but you don’t give the guys the credit they deserve.”
Metzer does have a distinct memory involving McCreary, but it does come with positive feelings.
“I was lucky enough to cover both the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings,” Metzer recalled. “McCreary worked both of those memorable series and will forever be a part of the ups and downs that we as media folk and fans experienced during those seasons. I also appreciate the fact that the players and coaches seem to have a strong respect for him, as they should based on his seniority in the officiating ranks.”
As far as officiating in the National Hockey League goes, McCreary has earned and deserves a substantial amount of credit for the job he has done over the past 26 seasons. VanMassenhoven would not hesitate to hand it all to McCreary.
“I would describe Bill as a great referee, one of the best ever, if not the best to officiate in the NHL. More importantly, he is also a great person, a real team guy. From the beginning of my career almost 20 years ago, Bill was one of the veteran guys who always made you feel welcome and part of the team,” recalled VanMassenhoven.
Diehard fans of the game will undoubtedly notice a certain mustache unaccounted for next season. McCreary’s salt and pepper facial hair is as iconic in the hockey world as former referee Kerry Fraser’s signature bouffant hair style.
“I’ve had a moustache since I was very, very young in life and I’ve always kept it. I think, I’m not going to lie about it, it certainly gives you an identity,” McCreary said.
He was less willing, however, to compare it to Fraser’s doo. “To compare it to Kerry’s hair, no I wouldn’t do that.”
Mears also recognizes McCreary’s moustache as something that will always stick out when thinking of the official. “Things that always stand out to me, the moustache for one thing, he’ll always be known for that,” Mears stated.
More so than the moustache, it’s the man that will be missed in the officiating world next season.
Colligan hopes that McCreary will continue to stay involved in the officiating world in one way or another to continue to try and better the game.
“I have never met Bill personally, but I would encourage him to stay actively involved in the future of NHL officiating,” Colligan said. “There needs to be a more structured developmental system in place to make sure talented officials are always ready to handle the highest level of hockey in the world.”
Don VanMassenhoven agrees that Bill’s moving on will have an impact on the NHL Officials Association.
“Bill’s retirement will be a big loss for the NHLOA,” VanMassenhoven said. “He has always been active in association matters and a leader that the guys always looked upon for guidance. Hopefully he will remain involved in some way with the NHL, as he has so much to offer to all officials, and the game.”
McCreary plans on doing just that.
“I look forward to the future. I hope that I can stay in the game; at what capacity I’m not sure yet. I’d like to work with officials if I could. I believe I have something I can certainly help them with.”
McCreary hopes to be involved with the younger, up and coming officials, and that is good news. Even with that, he offers some advice that is pertinent to not only his fellow colleagues, but any young person hoping to make it anywhere in life.
“Something that’s crept into society, it’s not just in the NHL or the referees association, it’s everywhere in society, and that’s a sense of entitlement by young people. I don’t say that as a negative towards young people, but somewhere, somehow, people believe they’re entitled to things without working for them. I would make a recommendation to our guys not to have that sense of entitlement, that you have to earn it, you have to respect seniority, and you have to show your peers and the teams, coaches, mangers and players that you’re going to work hard each and every night, and do the best you can and to uphold the integrity of the game by calling the rules and the standard that’s put forth by your people to keep the game as entertaining as possible.”
McCreary is arguably the best to ever carry a whistle in the National Hockey League. His resume speaks for itself, but it’s also the man that he is off the ice which truly exemplifies the kind of person McCreary is, and how he has become so successful.
So, as the time ticks down on a prolific career as a professional official, McCreary can leave with his head held high, knowing that he has contributed more to the game than he will ever know.
As he flips the puck and skates off the ice for the final time in the coming weeks, it will be closure to a story just waiting to be told. The mustache may no longer be patrolling the ice, but it will forever live on each time a whistle is blown.