Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemeiux, Mark Messier, and Guy LeFleur are indelible hockey names. Some of their greatest moments on the ice came while they were as young as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Steven Stamkos.
There are other individuals who skate on those same frozen ovals. These father-like figures, whose striped uniforms signal authority, maintain control of the game. Most officials offer solid efforts that are worthy of respect. Then there are those who, like legendary players, transcend the game through their vision, performance, and longevity.
On a dually historic day in Philadelphia last April, the Flyers beat the rival New York Rangers in a season-ending shootout. It was the first time that a team clinched a playoff spot in that fashion. It was also the last of 2,165 games that Kerry Fraser, then the League's senior referee, worked.
“During my career I learned how to pay attention to detail, recognize my imperfections, and drop my wall. It takes some in-depth soul searching to make progress. I was just shy of my 58th birthday when I retired last season and I felt that I had given enough,” Fraser said.
The hockey world recognized more than his trademark hairstyle during Fraser's thirty-year NHL career.
“In that final season, it all came together. The players and coaches around the league were proactive in approaching me and their recognition meant a lot. I knew I was ready to move into another area of life, spend quality time with my family, and look for new challenges.”
Fraser was born in 1952 and grew up in Sarnia, Canada, which is 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. He and his brother Rick enjoyed watching the Toronto Maple Leafs on television. They spent their early years playing on a backyard rink that their Dad, a player in the International League, had built for them.
That backyard practice eventually helped Fraser to become the 19-year-old captain of the Southern Junior “A” League's Sarnia Bees. In 1972, the Bee's played a game against the Detroit Junior Red Wings. Detroit's roster included a 16-year-old forward with a famous hockey name.
“I sat with Mark Howe recently in the press box at Madison Square Garden. Back in the 1970's he was a boy in a man's body. I was 5'7” and about 140 pounds, while he was a number of inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier than me. Mark had just returned from playing in the 1972 Winter Olympics, in Japan, where the United States had won the Silver medal.”
Fraser vividly recalled a confrontation with a much younger Mr. Howe, which he detailed in his new book The Final Call: Hockey Stories From A Legend in Stripes.
“During one game we played against his team, in my final season of Jr. A hockey, I gave Mark the hardest open-ice check that I possibly could. You never want to let another player see if you're hurt, but my insides shook after I checked him. That hit let me know that I needed to look for another type of work.”
Through a referral of his Dad's hockey teammate, Ted Garvin, he attended the Haliburton Referee school in August, 1972. He worked through that decade, before earning a promotion to the NHL in 1980. He dropped his first puck in Colorado, when the Rockies faced off against the Minnesota North Stars.
“Ted said that, to be a good official, I had to understand the game and not over-referee it. I had to know the difference between a good hit and an illegal one. He also told me that I needed to get inside the player's heads, so I would know how they think. As such, the game really needed former players who could share this background knowledge.”
Fraser re-married in June of 1988 and that September he, his wife Kathy, and their young children moved to a home in New Jersey that they bought from former Flyers coach, Mike Keenan.
Kathy's three daughters: Marcie, Jessica, and Jaime, were all adopted by Fraser after they were married. In 1990, Kerry and Kathy also had a daughter, Kara, together. They also have five grandchildren: Kiera, Daryn, Madyn, Brady, and Harrison, who are between the ages of one and nine.
Kerry had three sons from his first marriage: Ryan, Matthew, and Ian. During the 2006-2007 season Fraser was on a rehabilitation assignment in the AHL. While there, he was able to work a game with son Ryan, who is a referee in that league.
Due to the travel involved in Fraser's career, he missed some important family occasions. However, his position allowed for unique access to the hockey world. Kathy and the kids were often able to join him for regular season games in various cities and for special events including: playoff games, 12 Stanley Cup finals, the 1996 World Cup, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and All-Star games in 1990 and 2000.
Faith has become an important part of Fraser's life. He received the call to it in 1995, converted to Catholicism in 2001, and attempts to attend Mass daily.
A career that spanned three decades naturally included working games with all of the greats, including Wayne Gretzky. The two “legends of the game” formed a lasting bond through an unexpected event.
“During a game in Los Angeles, I placed my hand on the bench while I was talking to their coach, Barry Melrose. Kathy had bought a pinky ring for me as a gift and it had gotten turned around on my finger, so the crucifix on the front side of it was not showing. Wayne was sitting on the bench, saw my ring, and was not impressed. I turned it around, so the crucifix was showing, and told him that it had been a gift from Kathy. He nodded his head, looked at me in way that showed he understood, and said, “That's great Kerry.”
“From there, Wayne and I developed a unique relationship. He has a very special, quiet spirituality about him and was raised by two wonderful parents. I recognized his ability to accept his role as the face of the game and to do good for others.
“He has tremendous recall and is a hockey historian. One time, when Kathy and I were having dinner with him in Phoenix, he told me that he remembered watching me play in the junior leagues when I was a teenager and he was a youngster.”
Al Arbour and Scotty Bowman are two coaches Fraser felt were the best he ever saw. He offered accolades for two current coaches as well.
“I love what Craig Ramsey is doing in Atlanta. He is a quiet, methodical, guy who has a great understanding of how to play the game and is so good with young players.
“Peter Laviolette, in Philadelphia, is another person who has connected with his team.
He is taking the talent that he has and is allowing it to mature. He has a pulse on the game and is a perfect fit for Flyers.”
Like coaching, developing officiating skills takes time and effort.
“Not unlike the great players who demonstrate a superior field of vision on the ice, good referees must learn how to adjust their positions in advance, so they can have the best sight lines of the play as it develops to observe the action without becoming tangled up in it. Over time, you form judgment as well. It was once stated that through Experience a referee acquires Judgment; through Poor Judgment he will acquire Experience! An academic mind is always thinking about getting better. You want to be astute, stay honest, and analyze your own work to become the very best that you can be.”
In the 1990's, the NHL tested a two-referee system. By the 2000's, they fully implemented it into the league.
“There was an adjustment period to the two-referee system. We strove for consistency, similar to a defensive pairing. We had to learn how to work together as a team.”
After the 2004-2005 lockout season, obstruction was addressed by the league, but head shots have remained a controversial topic. It is one that Fraser was involved in during his career, he even made a presentation about it at a Mayo Clinic Hockey Summit that he was invited to attend this past fall.
“The restraining tactics that were coached and utilized following NHL expansion and we, as referees, allowed were horrific. A wise decision was made by the League to allow the skilled players to play, which added more excitement to the game. I have always taken a strong, opposing view of head shots. As officials, our first responsibility is to provide safety.
“After returning from the lockout season, I assessed two game misconducts in separate games, but Colin Campbell (NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations) and Steve Walkom (then NHL Director of Officiating) deemed them to be “good hockey hits” and rescinded the game misconducts. That sent a bad signal to everyone, officials and players alike, that those types of hits to the head were okay. Suspensions and loss of player salaries is the strongest deterrent that can be offered. The Players Association and the League need to decide this matter.”
During two of his final three seasons, including his last, the league did not allow him to work in the playoffs. An interesting decision, as he had often been voted the best referee in a League-wide vote of the players. It is worth noting that Fraser was an active member of the NHL Officials Association during his career and played a key role in their 1994 strike negotiations.
“On the labor side, I was able to exercise a voice for those that may have been improperly disciplined, or terminated.”
Growing financial issues among some teams and player association matters have now formed on the NHL's horizon.
“A potential labor situation is developing. Donald Fehr (recently named NHLPA Executive Director) gets the most for the people he is representing.
“The salary cap is being increased. But, there are troubled markets. Atlanta needs to win to survive. Florida is struggling and the league-owned Phoenix team is going to be sold. Winnipeg and Quebec are two locations that could gain franchises in the future.”
At the beginning of his final season, Fraser accepted an offer from Fenn Publishing to write a book about his career. Published in the fall of 2010, it became the number one selling hockey book in North America. The forward to it was written by Wayne Gretzky.
He credits his wife with keeping him on a schedule that began a week after his last season ended and for helping him to recall many of the great hockey anecdotes that fill the pages. He generally wrote for 18 hours a day in order to meet a 75,000 word commitment.
“The fans want access to be in the game. The book allowed me to do that for them.”
Beyond the humorous, sometimes controversial, and great behind the scenes stories from Fraser's 30-year NHL career, his book also offers a very human narrative. It draws the reader into a world only previously viewed from their arena seats, or in front of a television set.
“I have received a lot of positive feedback, including a recent message from a 28-year-old USA hockey referee. He told me that he was ready to quit the game, because he had suffered such abuse. But, he credited my book with helping him to take the chip off his shoulder and to refocus on developing relationships with players and coaches.”
Fraser has recently joined TSN, in Canada, as a post-game analyst. He will be featured on “That's Hockey 2Nite”, during segments called “C'mon Ref”, with host Steve Kouleas and fellow panelist Matthew Barnaby.
“I'm comfortable in front of the cameras and love to share insights. I think I can provide a unique perspective and help to educate viewers about the rules of the game, in addition to sharing personal experiences and stories like those that have made The Final Call a best seller. There is a market and a desire for people to learn something different. In the future I might start a blog, or even write another book.”
As a boy, he played hockey on backyard rink in Sarnia. As an adult, he became a professional referee who will likely gain entrance into the NHL Hall of Fame. At the end of our interview Kerry Fraser, the grandfather, said that he was going to go watch his nine-year-old grandson Harrison play hockey. A final comment that combined his love of family with his continuing passion for the game.