By Iain MacIntyre, Vancouver Sun
In a profession where abuse is endemic, where you become so accustomed to excoriation on the job that the vitriol barely registers after a while, Brad Lazarowich said he is most proud about the respect he maintained for the game and its players.
He could have done something that generated less hostility like, say, handing out parking tickets, collecting taxes, teaching in the public school system. But from the time he volunteered at age 16 to officiate a minor-hockey game in North Delta because the referee didn’t show up, Lazarowich wanted only to wear the National Hockey League uniform that had stripes and a bullseye on it.
For the last 30 years, he was one of the best linesmen in the NHL. But for the first time since he was 22 years old, he’s watching the Stanley Cup playoffs without a job to return to in the fall.
The linesman, who now lives in Langley, retired this month after working his 1,971st NHL game in Winnipeg.
At the end, players and coaches from the Jets and Minnesota Wild lined up to shake Lazarowich’s hand.
“That was pretty cool,” he said Tuesday. “With 10 minutes to go, they put my name up on the scoreboard (during a television timeout) and announced that I was doing my last game in Winnipeg because that’s where I did my first game, and I got a standing ovation. I almost broke down.
“I treated the game with so much respect. I truly just love this game. The game supported me and my family for all these years. I was so fortunate to get to be part of it for so long at such a high level.”
With two grown daughters and a wife, Cathy, Lazarowich isn’t sure what his next job in hockey will be. He is tutoring officials in the B.C. Hockey League and the NHL is sending him to the Memorial Cup in May to assess referees and linesmen.
His retirement plan from the NHL was formulated two years ago. The league, in combination with the NHL Officials Association, acts progressively to transition longtime officials toward retirement.
Lazarowich had planned to finish his career with 2,002 regular-season games but an elbow injury suffered Nov. 4 in Vancouver cost him 13 weeks and prevented him from becoming just the fifth NHL linesman to reach that mark.
He finished with 202 playoff games and three Stanley Cup Finals assignments.
“You know when you’re done,” he said. “I’m 53 years old and I put in 30 years. I got hired young. I’ve got a bad left knee, that injury in November. Sooner or later you’ve got to look in the mirror and say you’re not serving the game anymore like you should be. When I check into hotels, the first thing I ask is: ‘How far away is the ice machine?’
“If I look at my career, there’s honestly nothing I can look back at and say I got screwed. I did 24 years straight in the playoffs. Can you imagine? Some guys never get in. And a lot of guys who get in never get to the finals. I had three Stanley Cup Finals — and one of them was a Game 7.”
That was in 2003 when the New Jersey Devils beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
When Lazarowich was hired by the NHL in 1986 after only three years in the Western Hockey League, games had only one referee, a centre red-line that restricted passing, no video reviews, and lots of players like Dave Semenko, Tiger Williams, Chris Nilan and Bob Probert.
Yes, the game has rather changed.
“We used to have four or five fights a night; now we have four or five fights a week,” Lazarowich said. “If I had a dollar for every time I took a punch. Back then, there were so many fights you’d have to get one broken up because another was starting. I got hit really hard one night. Marty (McSorley) and Tim Hunter were fighting in L.A. and I went in way too early and took a punch. I think it was from Marty. I remember going in there and all of a sudden I’m down. It wasn’t their fault.”
He said the toughest fans were in Philadelphia but the funniest line he remembers was in Minnesota before the North Stars moved to Dallas.
“We’re with the referee trying to figure out a play at the penalty box,” Lazarowich said, “and somebody yelled: ‘I’ll throw you a head of lettuce so you can have an intelligent conversation.’ ”
The ever-increasing speed of the game, he said, forces every call by referees and linesmen to be made quicker.
“And you don’t get faster at my age,” he said. “I was fast when Kennedy was shot.”
As comfortable as Lazarowich is with his decision to retire, he said it was difficult leaving a job he so loved.
“You know what the best thing is?” he said. “When you’re in the dressing room and you’re watching the clock and it’s time to go out. You walk down the tunnel and you’re the first guys on the ice. The players haven’t come out yet. There’s that minute or minute-and-a-half that we get to be out there by ourselves.”
And the home fans are cheering, waiting for their team, but never too pre-occupied to boo the officials when they bolt on to the ice, music blaring and arena lights flashing.
“I’m going to miss that like crazy,” Lazarowich said. “I loved that feeling.”