Podcast -

Ron MacLean’s Career as a Hockey Referee

On Episode 33 of the Team Stripes Podcast we got to speak with longtime Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster, Ron MacLean. While he is best known for his broadcasting career, he also had quite the career in stripes, as he was a referee for 23 years. His career led him to officiating junior, minor pro, senior and university hockey in Canada – during which he became a Level 5 referee in Hockey Canada. He also got to referee a 2006 NHL preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

During the episode, Ron talks about his introduction to officiating, some memorable moments for him, and how his time as a referee has served him as a broadcaster. It was a great episode and we appreciated having Ron spend some time with us. You can listen to the full interview at the bottom of the article!


Brandon Bourgeois: What was your introduction to officiating first and foremost?

Ron MacLean: Well, Brandon, I was still playing midget hockey in Red Deer, Alberta and I had just embarked on a little bit of a radio career. I didn’t think it was going to be my full time gig, but three of my high school chums, we’re going down to CKRD in Red Deer, Alberta. And they were working as button pushers operators. They were known as. And one day a friend was sick and he said “phone, Ron Maclean, a friend of mine, he’ll come down to the radio station and push buttons for $27”. And I did. And that same guy was a referee, his name was Barney Ross. He’s gone now. But Bernie was a kind of an influence on my life growing up in Red Deer. And this was around 1976-77 and I was completing my midget hockey playing and I got cut by the Red Deer Rustlers out of training camp in the autumn.

And so I thought, you know, I’m enjoying this radio. If I played juvenile A, I might get my teeth knocked in and you know we had no masks or visors, so I decided to stop playing and joined Bernie as an official in the Central Alberta Zone in Alberta. And I just remember the first game was a complete blur. I was in grade 11 and I was just doing mites or squirts or whatever they were called at the time and even that for me – the first time on the ice it was just like being in the eye of a hurricane but it didn’t take long for your hockey wits to come about and you started to learn not to focus on just the puck and take it a little bit wider scope.

And then I got the bug like I did with radio. I really started to enjoy the challenge of working with the players and the skating part of it is great recreation. The focus part of it is great recreation. The fact that you have for a couple of hours that you’re involved in a game, nothing enters your mind except the game itself. So it’s actually quite a, an escape and quite refreshing and I, and I just went from there. I started doing like all of us a level two officiating and we’ve gone up to level five over the years.

BB: So you said you caught the bug. I mean, was it a good learning curve for you to be able to improve as an official or were you somebody that really as soon as you get going your first couple of seasons, it was something that was a natural fit for you?

RM: Yeah, I think in my life I was an only child, so we moved around. My father was Air Force, so we moved all over the country. I lived in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Yukon, and Alberta. I was always forced to make new friends. I had no siblings. So you become a little bit more outgoing by virtue of the fact it would be quite lonely if you don’t. And I as a result would become captains of hockey teams. I was just a talker, had to be. I had a bit of a social gift because of that necessity. I would be the captain of most of my hockey teams. I was president of the Students Union. I spoke just about every graduation, so I was kinda that chatty guy, that social guy that felt really a great in the role of an official where you’re kind of facilitating something that’s happening and you’re actually helping to lead it without being too hands on.

It was just one of the many kinds of things that seem to appeal to me, to the way I’d grown up because on the radio you’re sort of making someone’s day. Cheery bedside manner, kind of a job and maybe refereeing isn’t a cheery bedside manner type of a job. But it’s still working with others and trying to manage their emotions. And I loved it. I really, and truly all the years I did it, which I actively did for 23 years and I can’t ever remember going home thinking “geez, parents are jerks or coaches are jerks”. I understood why they had a vested interest in why they were wearing the slightly skewed lens and I just felt really excited.

My favorite moment was at centre ice during the anthem. Looking at the team in front of me on the blue line – steam coming up from the pre-game skate, and just the anticipation of getting to drop the puck and hoping that the night would go well. I don’t think there’s ever been anything I did that I enjoyed more.

BB: And looking back at your career, like you said you were an official for 23 years. You got to be a level five and hockey Canada. You worked junior a university and in lots of high level games. I mean, looking back at your career, what were the games that stuck out for you?

RM: Well, I was recently up at Lakehead University for a convocation and I refereed at the Fort William Gardens in pro hockey. It was the lowest rung of professional hockey. But I did the what was called the United League or the Colonial League. Bruce Boudreau was a coach in that league, Marty Howe, lots of big names came through and I refereed guys that played in the National Hockey League. I remember it was the first night they had decided to sell beer and so the rink held 5,000 spectators. It was packed with just jammed and there was beer flowing and I had a crazy game going on. There was a fight broke out and one guy took off his helmet, grabbed by his own chin strap and catapulted the helmet.

I’d never seen anything like that in my maybe 15 years refereeing. So you know, it’s a match penalty for intent to injure. But it was quite the spectacle and that was a really great weekend. I refereed two games which is normally what you do when you’d go up to thunder bay. And I actually did a speech in between and people in the audience who were at the speech were questioning some of my calls on the Friday night – it was a really great experience.

In my book, I write about a game, a senior game in Bentley, Alberta with the Generals and the Sylvan Lakers where there was a race for the puck between a guy on a breakaway and the goaltender. The Bentley goaltender came out to try and beat him to the puck. They collide and when they collide, the goalie goes down like he’d been shot and I just felt like that couldn’t have been that serious and so I let the play continue long enough for the Laker to get up and put it in the empty net. It was in overtime and it led to the crowd pouring over the glass and through the gates. And it was just anarchy in the Bentley arena. If I had it to do again, as I wrote in the book, I would have blown the play dead because what’s the harm? Once you make a decision as critical as I made and the game ends, there’s no going back. I think I probably shouldn’t have tried to play doctor and figure out whether the goalie was genuinely hurt.

I should have just blown it down and I don’t think Sylvan Lake would have been that upset that I blew the play down. But that was a learning experience and it’s probably the most memorable because the mother of the goalie was one of the fans on the ice and she was screaming blue murder at me and then her denture fell on the ice and that kind of stopped everything. Everybody was in shock. I met her recently and her son, the goalie, Bernie is now a referee out in Alberta. So he was mad at me at the time, but it didn’t turn him off officiating altogether

BB: And Ron you mentioned that you weren’t someone who got rattled easily. You knew your role in the game. You knew people we’re going to be emotional. But certainly if ever you were going to be tested mentally, if would be after a game like that. I mean was there ever any strategies or tips that you implemented throughout your career to handle games like that?

RM: Well, one of the countermeasures to that was in my early career in broadcasting, I had severe anxiety. I’m the person that maybe the CBC or CKRD would throw it out to me and say “now here’s Ron Mclean” for the next minute it would just be me and I’d get my fight or flight adrenaline going. It was brutal and I had to kind of work my way through that. I thought I was the only one in the world that ever experienced anxiety because I was young and an only child. So I battled there, but I never battled on the ice as a referee, which is the weirdest thing. I don’t know if it’s because you’re in motion when you’re making decisions – or you have that fresh air in your lungs. But I never felt afraid, and as a referee it was the most calm situation for me and, I had nights when I was down on myself. Nights where I knew I’d lost my temper. Nights where I had lost my grace or even made bad calls and I was down on myself for that, but I was always able to forgive myself because I was an athlete, right?

I played all sports. I’d missed a game winning field goal for the senior championship at our high school in Red Deer. God knows I missed penalty shots or breakaways, you know. I’d failed like the old Michael Jordan saying you know, “I’ve missed 9,000 shots”. I’d blown the game winning free throw 330 times. I failed a lot and that’s why I succeeded. And I kind of had that sports mentality in officiating, you just can’t get it right all the time. Nobody can, so it didn’t, didn’t eat away at me like maybe my mistakes in broadcasting did.

BB: That’s a great point. And just, I’m curious because obviously we talk a lot about how young kids want to make the NHL. They see the bright lights ahead of them. For you, did you ever see yourself making those professional levels, like the NHL, as an official?

RM: As an official for sure, but it was tough because my broadcast career kind of took off a little bit. I was 24 years old when your father Charlie [Bourgeois] was playing for the Calgary Flames in 1984 and I was already in the NHL as a 24 year-old broadcaster, so I knew that chances are, that’s the route I was going to take. But my dream was to work the Olympics. We had an official from Central Alberta, Bernie Haley of Innisfail. He had worked at the Lake Placid Games in 1980 and he was one of my idols. Bernie was a beautiful skater. Really had that gorgeous stride – a long stride, powerful stride, like Paul Coffee.

And he was a great referee and I thought “I’d love to do the Olympics”, and unfortunately for me right around the peak of my officiating career, which is your mid forties, that’s when the NHL got involved in the Olympics and sort of took my dream away because now they started to use NHL referees to call the Games. They’re starting to mix it up a little, but at that point they were going fully with the NHL officials and that kind of ended that dream. But to get to do a world juniors or to do an Olympics was, was really high on my radar. The NHL part. I mean I was already there, so there’s no way that was going to happen.

BB: I read an article that you were interviewed for and it said that, you know, like in broadcasting as an officiating, you want to let your guests are the players, be the star. And I think that’s a great philosophy. But I had a question. I mean, when you were going through these levels and you kind of became well known for, for being a broadcaster, did it ever become tough where you know, you would officiate a game and people would say, oh, there’s Ron Maclean, and it became difficult to kind of let the players be the stars?

RM: The players were really good about it. I remember Manny Legacy was playing in Thornhill, Ontario, which is a suburb of Toronto and he hadn’t made the NHL yet. He’s just playing junior and he came over to the side of his crease and he mumbled, you know, you should listen to Don Cherry. And there were funny moments like that all the time because guys knew me. But you know you’re so focused on the game that all that other noise or chatter disappears. Before the game over a coffee people would say “Hey – It’s Ron from Hockey Night in Canada”. But the minute you’re starting to follow the puck around the ice and bodies crashing here, there and everywhere, none of that matters.

And like you know Brandon, for an official, there’s always a little baptism of fire. Every time you move into a new loop, like if you graduate to the American Hockey League, they might test you a little bit. But as soon as they get to know you, then it’s fine. They may not like you, they may not. If you’re a referee, a head referee, they may think you’re overzealous and you called too tight a game they may not like that you’re too lax and you call too soft a game – but they accept you for who you are. It’s a little different. I have to admit, you know, I was a product of the three referees system with two linesmen and one head referee.

Some referees it’s a little trickier to a pinpoint, you know, oh, this is Don Koharski. He calls it this way or that – but because  now [with the two referee system] I think it’s helped in a way to eliminate that. But I’m not sure it was a bad thing to know where you stood with the kind of game that was about to be called because you know, everybody tries for consistency. I think it’s impossible to get consistency night after night. I think it’s quite possible to get consistency from the start of the game to its conclusion.

BB: Jumping a little bit to your career in broadcasting, I mean a lot of the time obviously on the panels, whether it’s a Hockey Night in Canada panel – or any sort of national televised event, I mean, does your background as an official bring an asset to the table? Especially when you’re in these panels with a lot of these former players, goalies, and coaches? Does that unique background as an official sort of help out in the discussions?

RM: I think it’s certainly, you know, the core essence of officiating is fairness, right? So you’re kind of predisposed to wanting everybody to have the fairest shake. It makes you egalitarian in your approach to a panel. I think obviously there have been times when I see, you know like Don Cherry always kind of reads the goalie. As soon as the puck goes into the net. He looks to see if the goalie is looking with a glare at one of the defenseman, and [Don] can tell if the puck was tipped just by that. And a referee has a little bit of that too. You know, if everybody let up for a split second, chances are it was offside and those are little things that maybe helped me – and for sure you’re a judge or a adjudicator, so you’re always seeking a fairness in how the broadcast is conducted.

But I just think those leadership qualities, be they for a teacher or a doctor, as I went and mentioned earlier, bedside manner, I think that ultimately is the gift. How you create a presence. It can be a warm and friendly – some referee with honey, and some referee with vinegar. Both approaches can work. I did it with honey. I tried to talk my way through the night. But a lot of nights I would be, you know, charming the guy and he would just say, oh, shut up – just make the call.

And you know, you realize, okay, that’s not gonna work for everybody and nothing does. So again, you just sort of work as best you can. You try to be as consistent in your own approach. I always teach – try to maintain your grace at all costs. That’s the biggest thing for the referee. We are letting the guests be the star. It’s not that you’re a rollover. You really are there to help the two warriors do their thing, that is the game. There is the battle between two sets of players and they’re under a tremendous pressure. They are in a really deep emotions are ratcheted up to such a level that they really rely on you to be the calm one.

I love in Campbellton, New Brunswick. There they have a little way that they collect the money, the referees for the end of the year party, if you get hit by the puck, you have to put fifty cents in a jar. I think it’s actually ratchets up to a dollar for certain other things when you get in a way, but it was kind of a gracious idea that, you know, if you get hit by a puck. Where many referees will say “Hey – look where you’re shooting!”. I would never do that. I always took the blame for getting hit by the puck. Even if I thought the guy might’ve done it on purpose, I never wanted to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I was gonna take the bait or that I was going to be upset. I wanted him to feel totally confident that I felt confident and that if it did hit me I could shrug it off and I could take the blame and then I think they would respect you more. And that’s a very important lesson for referees is to be gracious and to respect the players.

BB: And as you travel around the country for the job that you do now, do you ever find yourself stepping into the ref rooms? Going to see the officials that after the game and dropping by?

RM: Well, we don’t get to as many games as we should because we anchor so much from the CBC building in Toronto. But like, after a Stanley Cup game, it would be neat to do that. But I can’t say that I’ve ever done that. I remember Kevin Pollock had a quick whistle situation down in Nashville two years ago. It was a critical sixth game and looked like the Predators had scored, but Kevin had lost sight of the puck and just thought to blow the play dead. I know he’d have felt kind of crummy about it, but he’s a great referee. So I would have loved to have gone by and just told Kevin that – but it’s just bedlam honestly. We do reports for Sportsnet Central after the shows and with Don Cherry you are essentially walking with Santa Claus. So we can’t walk without him taking a photo, a “thumbs-up” and signing autographs. So it just doesn’t work out that way. I see [the officials] maybe in the off-season doing charity golf and I wish I saw them more.

BB: When you started as an official – and look 23 years later towards the end of your career – how did you change as an official? Did you progress in certain ways or did your mindset change at all as you went along?

RM:  I liken all my sort of innate skills to a version of leadership and I kind of applied those to broadcasting, to refereeing, to leading school unions. Always the same sort of building blocks were in place. I guess the one thing that I did learn is that if you have a heavy workload in a particular week, I learned to concentrate better. My focus improved as I grew older. Understanding the pitfalls of letting your guard down. If you referee three games in three nights, I guarantee you the third period of the third game, you’re going to make a mistake. You’re just mentally going to start to take it for granted and it’s a really important point that you maintain your concentration. You really bear down and focus.

Otherwise that arm is just going to start flying up on you. And you’re not going to have used your judgment. You’re just going to be a reactionary and you cannot be a reactionary, as a good official. You have to really be sort of always saying – “what’s left in the game, what’s the situation?”. I don’t think they teach as much game management as we used to, but I still think it’s important. And I honestly think last year in the National Hockey League, I felt that the refereeing became nicely nuanced. I would say probably to the chagrin of anybody that’s in charge of hockey, but I felt like they were letting them play a little more than they had, say coming out of the 2006 symposium conducted by Brendan Shanahan. And I liked that. I thought the hockey was great.

I think that’s the art. I really do think the art of officiating is to know when to back off. In my life one of my favorite writers is a guy named Harold Bloom who did a book called Where Shall Wisdom be Found? – and it’s comparing all the greats, like as an example in one chapter, he compares the writings of Shakespeare to the writings Cervantes, the Spaniard who wrote Don Quixote, and it’s all about wisdom. Everything in the book is about, whether it’s Plato or Homer or St. Augustine, it’s about these writers who were trying to figure out how to get at the truth, how to get at wisdom. And ultimately the book concludes “wisdom is knowing what to overlook”. Knowing what to overlook. And I think as a referee that’s a really, really important lesson.

BB: I think that’s certainly something we can apply to many aspects of our lives.

RM: Yeah. And you know, when you’re working with a players, working with teams, it’s all about communication. It’s all about – I mean your dad certainly would’ve known – both at the university level and at the National Hockey League level, the strength of a team comes when all of the individuals are free to be themselves. There is no fear in how they are. There’s no constraints on who they are, but they know how to play the team role, right? They understand the two dynamics. They’re very counter-intuitive – how to be an individual and how to be a teammate. And the art is to bring those two together and that’s what a good referee does.

Brad Marchand would be a great challenge, right? There’s a guy that’s a superstar, a skilled player and a rat. And now you’ve got to figure out how do I keep that guy from killing this night? And if you can do that – if you can keep him, you know, sort of the opposition not to losing their moxie over this guy, then you’re a great referee.

BB: And as an official, when you saw that Brad Marchand licking incident, what would you have called?

RM: Well you know, it’s definitely a misconduct penalty. It’s the National Hockey League, so you have to be careful, but I would have given him a 10. That doesn’t put them down a man. But it certainly sends an important lesson. We used to handout Gross Misconducts, which they no longer do, but that was for making a travesty of the game. Perfectly written. It was a “you are making a travesty of our game, here’s a Gross Misconduct and you’re gone for the night” and he’d never do it again. And you know, there’d be a lot of hue and cry about it. But fact of the matter is in our world right now salacious stuff is just not acceptable anymore. And never mind the possible medical risks. It’s inappropriate conduct – and Brad knows it. Bless his heart. He’s a good person and a great player. And his job is to agitate and he just went a little too far on that. I would have started with a 10. I wouldn’t have given him the Gross immediately, but a 10 minute misconduct would have been, you know, then Bruce Cassie’s going to say “God, Brad, I can’t afford to lose you for 10 minutes”. So that would’ve been the end of it.

BB: Typically at the end of these podcasts, we like to provide some advice for officials. And we’re coming into another season and as we’ve mentioned, and there’s always lots of challenges each year, especially for newcomers. For these newcomers starting out – what advice would you give to them heading into the season?

RM: Well – Rhinoceros skin is a great idea. Please don’t think that what a fan, parent, or player says is any reflection on truly the work you’re doing. You know, the only person you truly have to face is the one in the mirror. And try to remember that we all are human. We all are. It’s nice to be vulnerable. It’s nice to listen to what others have to say because that’s how you improve. But at the core – we always say – “if you have you a red heart” which means you have a well intentioned heart. That versus a black heart. Which means you have an agenda – or an axe to grind. Now you’re going to be in trouble if you’re looking for a guy that bothers you or a coach that irritate you.

Just go into every game with a red heart – be generous, be understanding that you’re kind of the custodian. You’re kind of the conduit that’s gonna make this game electrifying tonight.

I used to always say to the Linesman – around the 10 minute mark of the third period to the end of overtime – that “the game is yours now – I really need you to be on the ball now”. Icings are critical, offsides are critical, skirmishes are critical. So the linesmen kind of take over important games, especially late in the game. So we all play a really vital role. But go do it with a red heart. Go do it for the right reasons. And that is for the, for the players.

BB: I think that’s exceptionally well said, Ron, and I think for those that are listening out there, they certainly appreciate your advice and your experience and, and all that you bring to officiating. So we certainly thank you for your time and we wish you all the best down the road.

RM: My pleasure, Brandon. Yeah, you be great too.