NHL officials are the highest paid officials of the four major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). Being an official is a prestigious honor and requires a long journey where tenure and experience is invaluable.
Referees and linesmen have to be masterful ice skaters, as the job requires speed to keep up with the flow of the game and maneuverability to avoid getting in the way. Not getting in the way—a major component that is often overlooked.
The next time you watch an NHL game, try to focus on the officials and notice how well they stay out of the way of the puck and the players. The skill is only amplified by doing so in a confined hockey rink where the are no out-of-bounds.
This is a tribute to the hardest working, most skilled officials in all of sports. We take a look at the top five NHL officials.
Dan O'Halloran, who wears No. 13, is in his 15th season in the NHL. Originally from Essex, Ontario, O'Halloran has shown a love for the game since he was young. His original exploits in officiating started after he was given $5 for retrieving pucks out of the back of the nets for pickup games and dropping the puck.
Years later, on March 13, 1983, O'Halloran nearly lost his life. After just finishing refereeing a bantam playoff hockey game in Windsor, Ontario, O'Halloran and a few friends got lost after having a meal across the border in Detroit. It was then, at the young age of 19, that O'Halloran was shot.
Ever since, O'Halloran has worn No. 13 to remember how lucky he is to be alive and living a healthy life. O'Halloran officiated his first NHL game on October 14, 1995.
O'Halloran has a reputation as a referee who isn't afraid to discuss his calls with coaches. To a point. This often puts O'Halloran in the sight lines for coaches looking to explode. O'Halloran offered his thoughts on those moments.
"You have to know the difference between abuse and emotion," O'Halloran said. "Emotion is good for the game. It's a game of angles and we only have the one. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we make more mistakes than the players? No."
O'Halloran has worked the 2007 and 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, alongside Paul Devorski. He was also one of 13 officials to be selected to work the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, including working the Gold Medal game.
A native of Pointe Claire, Quebec, Dave Jackson has been officiating in the NHL for 20 years and has refereed over 1,000 games.
Jackson, who wears No. 8, is thankful for being able to officiate in the NHL. Having dreams of playing in the NHL since he was little, Jackson started refereeing at the age of 14 as a way of making money. Little did he know it would turn into a career.
Jackson was invited to a referee school where he was watched by NHL scouts. In 1986, Jackson was brought into the NHL as a trainee, refereeing minor league hockey in the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League.
Three years later, he would sign a contract with the NHL as a referee and became eligible to referee an NHL game. Jackson did so on December 22, 1990 in his native Quebec for a Nordiques game.
“I thought I would be more nervous when I skated out on the ice,” Jackson said. “It felt like any other game until I dropped the puck and Guy Lafleur whizzed right by me with his hair flying. I grew up watching him and my heart just kind of dropped. I was then nervous until I called my first penalty.”
Jackson, one of the most tenured NHL officials, has no plans on stopping anytime soon.
“I’ll need to stay in shape,” said Jackson. “As long as the mind and body are willing, I’ll continue.”
Paul Devorski, wearing No. 10, is in his 21st season as an NHL referee. From Guelph, Ontario, Devorski is one of the most well respected referees in the NHL today.
Being one of the most tenured NHL playoff referees, he has developed a reputation for being a no nonsense referee. Devorski comes from a family of hockey, as he is the older brother of NHL linesman Greg Devorski.
Devorski's skills and attitude have led to him being selected to work three Stanley Cup Finals in a row, from 2007-2009. He was also selected to work the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and refereed multiple games, including the Bronze Medal game.
2010 was not Devorski's first Olympic experience, as he had previously refereed at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy and worked the Gold Medal game there.
47-year-old Stephen Walkom is not the longest tenured official on this list, but he has arguably contributed the most to the game of hockey out of any of them.
Wearing No. 24, Walkom is one of the most respected officials to ever lace up a pair of skates. After fielding an impressive amateur career as an official, including a Level VI certification and working in the Memorial Cup, he went on to join the NHL in 1990.
He has officiated 779 NHL games to date, including regular season and playoff games. Walkom was part of Stanley Cup Final officiating crews in 2002 and 2004, plus the World Cup of Hockey in 2004.
On August 3, 2005, Walkom retired from officiating and moved into a position as Director of Officiating. Walkom would go on to assist Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell to install changes in the NHL game.
One of the biggest challenges he faced was how interference, hooking and holding penalties would be called. Walkom's idea of engaging NHL officials by playing hockey during their preseason training camp, gave officials a deeper appreciation and understanding for the game they regulate.
"Stephen has done a terrific job of bringing the officials together after our rules changes," Campbell said. "He set a standard for officiating and helped the League get the game in a shape that just gave us the best Final ever."
After a few years working in an Administration capacity in the NHL, Walkom prepared to return to the ice as a referee.
"It's been an honor and privilege to serve the game in any capacity. Luckily enough, I had that chance off the ice, and now I'm looking forward to serving back on the ice." Walkom said.
On October 21, 2009, Stephen Walkom officiated his first game back from retirement. Walkom is married and has three children and resides in the Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
With his signature black mustache, Bill McCreary is one of the most recognizable referees in the NHL. That, or it could be that he is also the longest tenured referee.
McCreary has worked 1,982 NHL games, having reached the milestone of 1,500 games on February 16, 2008. In his 26th year in the NHL, McCreary has seen and heard it all, but still cherishes every moment of it.
“I am honored to have worked in the NHL this long,” McCreary said. “My family has always been very supportive of my career and I’m very lucky they all enjoy watching hockey!”
Bill began his officiating career after spending three years playing Junior-A hockey in St. Catharines and Windsor. Later, he joined the OHA as a linesman and worked the following two years as a referee.
After his third year in the OHA, the late John McCauley, who at that time was the Supervisor of Officials for the NHL, invited him to a training camp. He was initially offered part-time work in the Central and American Hockey Leagues for the season.
Then, in 1982, Scotty Morrison, former NHL Referee-in-Chief, signed him to an NHL contract. McCreary has always thanked everyone who helped him in his career, especially his co-workers.
“Then there are all of the officials I’ve worked games with over the years,” McCreary said. “We are a team on the ice and you simply can’t be successful alone.”
Between 1994 and 2007, McCreary worked every Stanley Cup Finals, a record which stands today most likely will never be broken.
His resume impressively continues, including the 1991 and 1994 Canada Cups, the 1994 All-Star Game in New York, the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan and the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, which McCreary considers the high point of his career to date.
McCreary plans to retire after the current NHL season, capping one of the most prolific officiating careers in the NHL ever. Does this mean an end to the famous mustache as well? Probably not.
“Absolutely not,” McCreary said. “I shaved it off once and even my dog didn’t know me.”
NHL officials are well respected and demand the best talent. NHL scouts will often find future referees much like scouts search for the next top NHL player.
While fans, players, and coaches will sometimes disagree with a call, it's important to remember that these officials are well trained and go through years of games, tests and classes before making it to the NHL.
For the speed at which the game of hockey is played, the officials do a tremendous job of not only regulating games, but also protecting players.
The next time you find yourself angry with an NHL official, remember they are no slouches. They may not get every call right, after all they are only human, but they have the knowledge and experience to make the proper call most of the time.
Here is to the stripped men who do not get enough credit for the fine job they do, especially considering the less-than-stellar officiating in other sports.
Helmets off to these officials.