For more than 25 years, Ron Wicks has been blowing the whistle on some of hockey's greatest legends. Sporting a sweater with names like Howe, Hull, Orr, Lemieux or Gretzky left little impression on the official who, in a way, became an NHL legend himself.
“I put them, and hundreds of others, in the penalty box because they deserved it,” Wicks wrote in the introduction to his new book, A Referee's Life. “Rules are rules, and I called 'em whenever anyone broke 'em.”
A native of Sudbury, Wicks returned to his hometown recently to sign copies of his book in the barn where it all began. Sitting at a table in the Sudbury Arena during a recent Wolves game, Wicks shook hands and signed autographs for inquisitive fans.
During his teenage years, Wicks was a member of the Sudbury Minor Hockey League, playing in the “brand new” Sudbury Arena, then home of the Senior A Sudbury Wolves. However, at 17, when he was too old to continue playing in the minor league, he turned his sights to refereeing.
“I realized I had a lack of talent as a player,” he said, while signing books at the arena. “But reffing allowed me to stay involved in hockey.”
Getting started as a referee back then was as easy as going out and buying a referee's sweater and a whistle.
“There were no referees' clinics in those days,” he wrote. “You just got yourself a rule book, tied on the skates and went out and did the job.”
And you did the job alone, he added.
“On the ice I was the referee, both linesmen, both goal judges, and game and penalty timekeeper. There was no passing the buck.”
He quickly moved up the ranks. Noted as the youngest official to ever work an NHL game, Wicks' career began October 1960, at New York's Madison Square Garden. Twenty-six years later, he retired from the world of reffing, holding the record for officiating the most career games — 1,067 to be exact.
But he wasn't quite ready to hang up his skates for good. For the next 20 years, Wicks continued to ref NHL alumni and old-timer hockey games across the country. To this day, the real estate broker, who now lives in Brampton with his wife, Barb, continues to referee benefit hockey games and to play in charity golf events.
Through the years, Wicks developed a reputation as one of the NHL's most respected officials. While dealing with angry players and coaches was a daunting task in itself, dealing with hockey parents on the minor hockey rink was even more undesirable.
“Dad should leave Little Johnnie at the rink, go out for a coffee, and let Little Johnnie play the game,” he said. “The biggest problem is that parents want to live vicariously through the youth.”
Despite the trials and tribulations along the way, Wicks' reffing career is one he looks back on with a fondness.
For those looking to try their hand at reffing, Wicks said experience is key to success.
“Get out and ref as many games as your can,” he said. “Learn from other refs — their demeanour and their attitude on the ice.”
Above all, he said acceptability is the most important trait to possess.
“You may not be the greatest ref, but if you're accepted by the players, the coaches and other officials, if you're not a jerk, you'll last.”
Two years in the making, A Referee's Life recaps Wicks' memories of his fellow officials, his relationship with the players, coaches and general managers.
A Referee's Life is available at Chapter's or online at www.gsph.com.