Retired referees Bill McCreary and Don Koharski chat about their start in officiating, what their most memorable non-NHL game was to ref, what attracted them to the profession, and more.
Bill McCreary and Don Koharski both served as NHL officials for 25-plus years and called some big-time games. Both are part of the prestigious 1,500-game club and, between them, did everything from Stanley Cup finals, to Canada Cups, to the Olympics.
Now retired, the two are part of Crown Royal’s “Make the Right Call” program, which encourages people to drink responsibly. You can see a video of the two discussing this program as well as their NHL careers at the bottom of the post. You can also read more about the “Make the Right Call” program here.
McCreary and Koharski had a quick chat with The Hockey News last week about their start in officiating, what their most memorable non-NHL game was to ref, what attracted them to the profession, and more.
THN: How did you get into refereeing?
Don Koharski: I’ve always taken the stand that all officials at all sports at the pro level are frustrated players at their sport. This is an avenue to stay in the game we have so much passion for. I started out in the WHA when I was just turning 19 as a linesman. I have that league to thank for my start 36 years later, from where I am today. I’m a lucky guy.
THN: Was that league intimidating for you at such a young age?
DK: Ya a little bit. I mean there was the Bobby Hulls and Gordie Howes of the world and they were heroes of yours growing up. And I just graduated from high school so, ya, it was a little overwhelming to say the least.
THN: How did you start Bill?
Bill McCreary: When you grow up in hockey you have the passion and parents driving you to the arena and picking me up from practice at all hours. When I made it to the Jr. A ranks (as a player) I quickly realized that playing against the likes of Denis Potvin and Bobby Smith and Ian Turnbull – I realized how bad of a hockey player I was and that my career was coming to an abrupt halt when I was turning 20. A way to stay in the game and give back to the game is officiating. And when you can get involved with the young children in your local communities, such as Don and I did, it’s special.
I was really fortunate. At the time I finished my hockey career there were seven men already working in the NHL as officials that were members of our association, so the mentorship and coaching I received was incredible and I continued the passion. But I had no goals to make it to the NHL. When things fall into place sometime it’s certainly rewarding.
THN: You refereed other levels before you got to the NHL. What is the most memorable non-NHL game you ever officiated?
DK: I come from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and my most memorable amateur game, you probably remember Bob Boucher, he was coaching Saint Mary’s University and Pierre Page was coaching Dalhousie. The universities are about eight miles from each other. It was on Valentine’s Day and none of the senior guys wanted to work that game because it’s usually a bench-clearing brawl. I was 18 and that was the first game I ever refereed – I was always a linesman because of my age. They threw me into that one and we did have about 305 minutes in penalties and it was a great learning experience. I really enjoyed that game and I said ‘I think I’m cut out for this business.’
BM: I was lucky enough to graduate to the refereeing level – it was called the OHA back then, it’s now major junior. My one and only playoff game I refereed was in Kitchener, Ontario and I was with a linesman named Mark Vines, who also made it to the NHL. But our boss came in at the end of the game and said ‘You’ll never work another game as long as I’m a boss.’ I don’t know what happened. I never did work again in the OHA, but I was hired that summer by Scotty Morrison in the NHL – I don’t know what happened, but that was part of my most memorable game. I thought I didn’t do a bad job, but obviously I didn't do a very good job according to my boss at the time.
THN: How did you get to your first NHL assignment?
BM: Scotty Morrison was our boss and when they hired you, you started an apprenticeship program that you worked through the AHL and Central Hockey League and both leagues at the time were loaded with NHL players and those aspiring to get there. For me it was two- or three-year program apprenticeship in those leagues and you graduate by learning to be consistent, learning to be a pro and dealing with men who make a living from the game, as opposed to when you come up through the ranks in minor hockey and junior hockey. It’s all about learning to be a pro and that’s part of the apprenticeship program.
DK: For me it was a little different path. As I said earlier, I was a linesman in the WHA and I think I did 93 games that year. One year and out because they lost a bunch of teams. And I went back home and worked the AHL as a linesman. And a gentleman named Dan McLeod, who was one of the supervisors of officials for the NHL at the time, recruited me that year through the AHL, then I got hired as a linesman my first two and a half seasons in the NHL. I was approached by Scotty Morrison about if I’d be interested in pursuing…maybe I was such a bad linesman they asked me if I wanted to go and referee.
THN: What appealed to you about being a referee as opposed to being a linesman?
BM: Both Don and I were lucky enough to come up in the traditional system of two linesmen, one referee. I think when you have such a passion for the game you want to be in charge of the games. With one referee, you’re in charge of the whole game, as good as you may be one night or as bad as you may be one night – you’re still in charge of that game. So you’re your own boss for that two and a half hours. That always appealed to me. Learning to deal with men and working with those two linesmen to get through the game - to make it as fair and safe as possible was always a slogan I went by. For me, the biggest deal was to be in charge of a hockey game at that level – it’s pretty exciting.
DK: I guess for me, when I worked as a linesman I always admired the work my referee teammates did. I think in the back of my mind and I go back to that one brawl I had in amateur hockey and I enjoyed that challenge. Over my two and a half years as a linesman in the NHL I’d always pick the referees’ brains: ‘why did you make that call? What did you say to that player or coach to calm things down?’ I learned an awful lot as a linesman and when I was asked if I’d be interested – I mean, I left the NHL to go back and work Junior A hockey to serve my apprenticeship and went through AHL and CHL and had early success. Sometimes we’re control freaks and if you have that skill, then I think it goes a long way to have a successful career as a referee.
THN: What is your most memorable NHL game/the most difficult assignment you ever got?
DK: My most memorable is probably my first Stanley Cup final. My most difficult assignment, the most pressure for me personally, was probably Game 3 of the ‘87 Canada Cup with Canada-Russia.
BM: I have to agree with Don. When you get assigned your first Stanley Cup your bosses have acknowledged you’re ready for the next step and that’s the final step. It’s such an honor when there’s two teams left and 40 hockey players and you’re one of the group of officials. That was quite an honor. When you’re assigned to a seventh game, it’s quite an honor to get that assignment.