The Zebra

Theo Fleury challenged me to a fight in the parking lot of the United Center. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was 20 years ago. It was the first round of the ’96 playoffs. Chicago vs. Calgary. Game 1.

Theo reminded me of me, actually. Small guy, gritty player, played with a lot of anger. But there was also this nasty edge to him in the way he dealt with authority figures. Let’s just say our relationship wasn’t the best. So during Game 1, I called a retaliation penalty on him. It was just a normal call, but for some reason, Theo went absolutely nuts.

I saw him skating toward me, and I started having bad flashbacks to the Wild West days in the AHL in the ’70s when Rich Lemieux took a swing at me. (Long story short: I yanked Lemieux’s jersey over his head to try to calm him down, and his teammate Ken Houston jumped over the boards and grabbed me in a bear hug. My little legs were dangling above the ice. My linesman came over and saved me just as Lemieux was pulling his jersey back down.)

So what I’m saying is, stuff can happen.

Theo skates over to me and says, “You little shitbag asshole. Come outside to the parking lot after the game. I’ll kill you.”

Fair enough. A little extreme, but I’ve heard worse. It was the playoffs.

But then he threw his helmet off like he was about to drop the gloves, and it hit my right skate. I felt that rush of adrenaline go through my body. The only other time I felt like hitting a player was when a tough guy named Lynn Margarit of the Muskegon Mohawks spat directly in my mouth when we were arguing a penalty in 1979.

I had the same feeling now. For a split second, my leg twitched and I was going to kick the helmet right back at Theo. That would have been the end of my career. Instead, I took a deep breath and threw him out of the game.

That defined our relationship for a long time. Theo probably thought I hated him, and I certainly thought he hated me. There’s a photo that I love of Theo getting pinned to the boards in Detroit, and instead of chirping the big guy who’s tying him up, his face is turned to me, telling me to go to hell for not calling a penalty.

Four years later, I was reffing a game in New York when Theo came up to me with tears in his eyes.

“Kerry, you gotta do something,” he said.

Theo had just gotten back to the ice after some time in a rehab program. At the time, I didn’t know the extent of his past trauma with sexual abuse — nobody did. But everybody in the league knew that Theo had spent a few rough years struggling with drugs and alcohol.

At the very end of the first period, Theo had gotten into a scrum with Blues tough guy Tyson Nash, and words were exchanged. Theo skated up to me after everything got broken up, and he was very emotional. You almost never see guys get emotional on the ice, but this was different.

“Kerry, he was talking about my drug problems,” Theo said. “He can’t talk to me like that. I’m really trying to clean up my life, Kerry. Honestly.”

He told me he hadn’t had a drink in X days, hadn’t done drugs in X days. I could tell that he was sincerely wounded. In that moment, I didn’t see the guy who threw his helmet at me and called me every name in the book over the years. I just saw a human being who was in a lot of pain, and I wanted to take his pain away.

But what was I supposed to do? I didn’t actually hear what was said. Do I kick Nash out for something I didn’t witness? How am I supposed to explain that in my game report? It was a gray area.

So as everyone was skating off the ice, I asked Theo, “What about an apology?”

Theo said, “An apology?”

“Yeah, an apology. If I get Tyson back here to apologize, promise me you won’t break a stick over his head.” 

“O.K., deal.”

“Alright, come back and meet me at this spot before the next period.”

I went right to the visiting team’s coaches room to talk to Joel Quenneville, who was coaching the Blues at the time. I told him we had a little problem. I told him what was said. And I’ll never forget Joel’s face. He’s such a solid guy.

He said, “Do you want me to have Tyson take his gear off?”

I said, “No, I want him to apologize.”

Joel said, “Great idea,” and he went right into the locker room to talk to Tyson.

I skated out at the start of the second period. Theo came out of the tunnel and met me at the prearranged spot. Tyson entered the ice at the Zamboni entrance and skated around a bit. He was reluctant to come over. So I had to wave him over to join the party.

When Tyson got to us, his lip was actually quivering. You could tell he was deeply affected, perhaps even ashamed. He tapped Theo on the shin pad and gave a terrific apology.

“I want to wish you all the best in everything you have ahead of you,” he said.

Theo and Tyson shook hands.

I said, “Let’s play some hockey.”

And we played some hockey.

Tyson ended up with an assist and 17 minutes in penalties that night. He was doing his job.

Ten years later, I had a phone conversation with Tyson. I asked him if he remembered that night at MSG. He said, “Kerry, are you kidding me? Of course I remember it. That night changed my life. It really made me think about what kind of person I wanted to be.”

As a referee, you get a tremendous amount of shit. You get it from players, fans, coaches. You get it when you’re having a hamburger at a bar. (“Hey, Fraser!”) You get it at hotels. (“Oh, Mr. Fraser …”) It’s just the job. But you know what? At the end of the day, no matter what job you’re doing, everybody has that moment when you lay awake in the middle of the night and you stare at the ceiling and wonder, What’s the point of all this? Am I making some small difference in the world?

That night at MSG, I really do believe that three lives were changed in a small way. I know mine was.

Nobody grows up wanting to be a referee. Every referee grows up dreaming of playing in the NHL, and I was no different. I started skating when I was 15 months old. My father played minor pro hockey. He was five-foot-eight but he had Popeye forearms. A real tough guy — exactly the kind of player I’d spend my career sending to the penalty box. My dad was a disciplinarian, sometimes to the extreme.

I remember this one day during squirt hockey so vividly. My father had really berated me for not working hard enough. God, I was all of 6 or 7 years old playing house league hockey. I came into the house crying, and my mother gave my dad the devil for being so harsh with me. The very next Saturday, my father and mother must’ve agreed that my dad would take a game off. He asked my Uncle Ted (you might remember him as Ted Garvin, former coach of the Red Wings) to take me to my game.

Ted gave me a little mint candy and said, “The NHL players eat this before every game. They give you energy. They’re goal-scoring pills.”

I believed him completely. I ate the mint and went out and scored a few goals. I came home happy as a lark. 

I remember that day so fondly because it was a rare day. By nature, I was an aggressive person. I had Little Man’s Syndrome. There are some things that are just hereditary. So I spent most of my Midget and junior hockey career as the kid the coaches would tap on the shoulder when things needed to be settled.

I’d actually wear a golf glove on my left hand, underneath my hockey glove, because it was so beat up from fighting.

When I turned 19 and went undrafted, my Uncle Ted told me I should consider refereeing school. The funny thing was, Ted was notorious for feuding with referees. One time he got suspended for throwing a towel at a referee. So when he returned from the suspension, he attached an elastic band to his towel. The next bad call, he threw the towel onto the ice. But when the referee went to pick it up, Ted yanked it back to the bench as a joke.

This was the guy telling me to be a ref.

I signed up to attend a referee’s school in Haliburton, Ontario. There were 150 of us out there, but for some reason Hall of Fame NHL referee Frank Udvari spotted me out of the crowd.

He came up to me right after we got off the ice and said, “Are you Hilt Fraser’s kid?”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Well, I want to invite you to the NHL training camp for officials. But you have to do one thing for me first.”

“Anything, Mr. Udvari.”

“You have to cut that Beatles hairdo.”

This was the early ’70s. The infamous slicked-back hair didn’t come until years later, when my wife told me it was time for a new ’do. May hair is naturally straight and hangs forward, so I actually used to take her butane curling iron on the road with me so I could curl my hair all the way back. That was part of my secret until I trained my hair. I’ll never forget when a lady came up to me after a game in Buffalo and said, “Kerry, I need to talk to you. I’ve got problem hair, and I see you skating around out there, and your hair never moves. What do you use?”

I said, “Well, ma’am, Paul Mitchell Freeze and Shine for game days.”

For whatever reason, Frank Udvari opened the door for me that day. I had never been on a plane before. Within a few years, I was traveling all over the U.S. and Canada on the grind. IHL. AHL. You met a lot of characters — a lot of guys who were getting paid peanuts and putting their bodies through incredible pain for the chance to lace up. In the ’70s, it really was a brutal game. You’d go into some AHL arenas and you’d feel it in the atmosphere. The worst were nickel beer night promotions in the old Central League. Fans got soused for 50 cents. Instead of drinking them at that point, the drunken fans threw full cups at the referee and the visiting team. You knew you were about to witness a bloodbath — either on or off the ice. Your job was to make sure nobody got killed.

I think the biggest misconception people have about refs is that they don’t have empathy for the players. But I really believe in my heart that it’s the exact opposite. Are we generally control freaks by nature? Of course. There’s an element of that. But I think the reason we dedicate our lives to this profession is because we have a tremendous amount of empathy for what the players put their bodies through night after night.

When I was 15, I remember lying on a pull-out couch in the basement of my grandparents’ house, just in complete agony. We had just played the Ontario Midget championship, and I had an ongoing battle with this kid from Kingston named Frank Coffey. He was a man among boys. Beard stubble. Six feet tall. We fought twice in that game and I did pretty well. When we went to Kingston to play them, their local newspaper, The Kingston Whig-Standard ran an article titled “Coffey: Me and My Shadow,” saying that this “hard-rock from Sarnia” Kerry Fraser was going to shadow him all over the ice.

Well, I skated out and I was so little that the whole crowd — like 5,000 people — started laughing. They thought it was a joke. On the first shift I hit Coffey with a hard body check and knocked the big guy over the boards into his players’ bench. That ended the laughter.

We battled so hard that night. Back then, you were basically wearing your shirt and underwear out there. The pads were paper-thin. So when I got back to Sarnia later that night, I was sleeping on this pull-out couch at my grandparents’ place. My dad was on the other couch. I was so banged up that I was moaning in my sleep like a wounded animal.

My dad hollered over. “Kerry, what’s wrong with you? Are you having a nightmare?”

“No. Just hurting.”

I tried to keep that night in mind every time I took the ice as a referee. There’s a lot of talk that goes on between players and referees that you can’t hear on TV. I used to make it a point to skate up to enforcers during the warmup and ask them how they were doing.

These guys were expected to fight for their livelihood, no matter what. They can’t just turtle in a fight. They can’t back down. Their coaches would have them on a bus back to the minors that night.

Even in the NHL, guys would come to me in warmups and say, “Hey, Kerry, my wrist is pretty dinged up. I don’t really feel like dropping them tonight.”

So I’d go over to my linesmen and say, “Hey, so-and-so is banged up. If you see him scrapping tonight, jump in there and get between the two guys quick.”

A lot of the job is about having an honest relationship with the players, even when you mess up.

If I knew I had missed a call, a player would skate up to me and say, “That was bullshit, Kerry.”

And I’d say, “You know what? You’re probably right. I’m sorry.”

There would be times when I’d say a little prayer: Please, God, do not let them score on this power play. I might have messed up.

I’ll just get this out of the way for the lovely fans in Toronto who are probably yelling at me right now — no, I didn’t say that prayer on May 27, 1993, in Los Angeles.

I was uncertain but thought I had it right. I’m sorry.

Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a win away from the Stanley Cup finals. Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings are trying to force Game 7. Most people probably know the story, but they know it from the perspective of a single camera in one corner of the Great Western Forum. All I can tell you is my perspective from the ice.

You don’t go into a playoff series blind. Referees do a ton of homework on players’ tendencies — how they play, what they try to get away with, what kind of penalties they took during the regular season. A Wayne Gretzky high stick? Wasn’t exactly in the game plan.

That was a hard-fought series. In overtime, you try to let the boys play as much as possible. But Glenn Anderson tried to run Rob Blake’s head through the glass, so I had to give him a penalty.

As the Kings set up on the power play, I was down by the far circle, away from the puck. In my brain, this is what I was processing:

Gretzky gets the puck. He shoots it, and my eyes go to the net. But Jamie Macoun blocks it. The puck rebounds between Gretzky and Doug Gilmour. When my eyes go back to Gretzky, I see a motion. Gilmour goes down. Did Gretzky’s stick follow through and catch him? Gilmour’s bent over now. He’s got blood on his chin.

And I have no idea what happened. That’s a helpless, helpless feeling. Under the 1993 rules, if Gretzky high-sticks Gilmour and it draws blood, it’s a five-minute major. He’s gone. It was a huge call to make — a worse one to miss.

Guys from both teams were skating up to me. It didn’t smell right. I should have known when I saw Gretzky skating away. Whenever there was a dispute, Gretz was always at the forefront arguing his side of it. But this time, he kind of slinked away. That was uncharacteristic. That should have tipped me off. But to be honest, I was attempting to roll back the play in my mind, over and over, looking for some measure of recall that would provide the evidence I needed.

I’m starting to think, Did I miss this?

I skated to my linesmen and said, “Guys, help me out.”

Rob Finn had the balls of an elephant.

He said, “Kerry, I didn’t see it. I was looking through their backs.”

Kevin Collins, who had conducted the end zone face-off said, “Well … I dunno.”

I had to make a decision. In referee school, they hammer it into you: Call what you see. Don’t guess. The honest to God truth is, I didn’t see it. I had to eat it. I said, “No penalty.”

The next faceoff, Gretzky stays in the game and scores to win it. He went on to have the game of his career in Game 7, and the Kings went to the finals. At the time, I had no idea the call would follow me for the rest of my life.

After the game, the NHL’s director of officiating Brian Lewis came into the referee’s room and said, “Good job tonight, guys.” We really thought we got it right. There weren’t all the slow-motion cameras like they have today. It wasn’t until the next day that I saw another angle of the play on television. You could clearly see Gretzky high-sticking Gilmour.

It was missed. Period.

It was agony for Leafs fans.  I understand the passion, the emotion and the frustration that Leafs fans have endured. They felt it was their time. When people come up to me and ask about it now, I just try to have a conversation with them. If I had one opportunity to turn back the hands of time for a “do over” it would be to catch that high-stick. I’m sure I’m not alone in that department.

As a ref, you sign up for this. You know that every night, you’re going to skate out in front of 17,000 people who don’t like you. That’s a very strange feeling. You never get over that. People want to be liked. It’s a basic human instinct. I accepted being hated — I probably played into it sometimes — but what I struggled with was being misunderstood. It troubles me that people would think I avoided making a call because of the star-status of Gretz or any potential ramifications to me personally. It’s just not who I am or how I’m wired.

What I want people to take away this story, especially as they’re watching the Stanley Cup finals, is how much stress everyone is under out there. You’re watching human beings, most of whom are giving everything they have despite incredible physical pain.

Mistakes will be made. Calls will be missed. Players will do dumb things. But what’s so genuinely great about this game is that, no matter what happens, when it’s all said and done, the players line up and look one another in the eye. You shake the hand of the man who has been trying to kill you for seven games.

After my father passed away in 2001, I was going through some of his old memorabilia when I found this newspaper clipping.

The article said that my father had been suspended for punching a referee in the face.

What was that poor zebra’s name?

Frank Udvari. The man who had given me my big break.

Hockey. That’s all I gotta say about that.