MONTREAL — Kerry Fraser is retiring, but he’s not a retiring guy.
The 30-year veteran referee, and his famous hair, has never minded the spotlight — some players might tell you he liked it a little too much — but the Sarnia, Ont., native will be packing up his Paul Mitchell Freeze and Shine hairspray after he works the New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers game on Sunday, which will be his 1,904th, and final, regular season game.
Fraser, looking much younger than the 58 years old he will turn at the end of May, has worked another 261 playoff games, including 12 Stanley Cup finals and has been part of the picture for many of hockey’s biggest moments. Not all of them are good in the minds of fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose DNA has now been imprinted with a “never forgive Kerry Fraser” gene.
Working those 12 finals reflects the regard in which he was held by the league and in a recent poll of NHL players by Sports Illustrated, Fraser earned the most votes as the NHL’s top referee.
Just about any conversation with Fraser starts with his famous hair, still thick and as imperturbable as ever.
When Fraser met with the media before his last game at the Bell Centre last week, the first question was about his ’do, which might have made him the most recognizable official of his time.
“It’s a little bit of genetics, but my secret is Paul Mitchell Freeze and Shine. I could skate in a hurricane and it never moved. I had a lady one time in Buffalo after a playoff game, she was waiting. We walked out of the old Auditorium and she said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ They got beat 1-0. I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s mad.’ I set my bag down and said, ‘Yes, ma’am?’ She said, ‘I have problem hair. You hair never moves. What’s your secret?’ So, I told her.”
Fraser worked without a helmet until 2006, but a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Officials Association made the bucket mandatory.
“I hate the helmet. I can’t wait to take it off Sunday, the 11th of April. I’m going to maybe put an Easter lilly in it or something. I’m going to fill it with dirt and put a flower in it,” he said.
His careful coiffure might have projected the air of a diva and Fraser said he knows he’s been accused of being “arrogant and cocky at times,” but insists he knows his place in the game.
“This is about the players. I always felt blessed to be able to skate on their ice. To see Mario Lemieux close at hand, Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur ... each city holds a special moment, even in the tough times.
“I love the game. I grew up watching it and wanting to play it. This is the next-best thing. To have lasted 30 years as a referee, to see the very best players the game has known over that period, to be close to them and rub shoulders with them has been special.”
Fraser isn’t too cocky or too arrogant to admit he’s made some mistakes.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans will point to the missed highstick by Wayne Gretzky when the Great One’s Los Angeles Kings were battling the Leafs in the 1993 Western Conference final.
It’s been called the most controversial call in Leafs history.
Gretzky clipped Toronto’s Doug Gilmour, cutting him for eight stitches. Fraser, after conferring with linesmen Ron Finn and Kevin Collins, didn’t call a penalty and Gretzky, who should have been in the box, scored the winner, forcing Game 7 and we all know how that turned out.
“Certainly the Gretzky (call), for sure, that was a missed call. It had an impact on the game because he scored the winning goal in overtime. No official ever wants to have a negative effect on a game,” said Fraser. “That certainly was one that I wished I had back.”
“It goes with the territory, the tough calls you have to make. I couldn’t look in the mirror if I went, ‘I didn’t see it.’ When I legitimately don’t see it, I’ll tell you I don’t see it. When I’ve legitimately made a wrong call, I admit to the player, the coach, ‘I’m sorry, I blew it, I missed it.’ ”
That’s the referee’s nightmare, of course, not making a call or making a bad call that determines the course of a game.
His record will show that Fraser got it right as often as anybody else. Job satisfaction was often a solitary experience.
“Often times it’s just that self-satisfaction in knowing we as a team (of officials), we were very good tonight. We gave the very best that we had to give and we enhanced the game, we didn’t detract from it, we didn’t effect the outcome of the game. Sometimes that’s not possible. There are times you have to step forward to show where your courage is. You have to lay it all on the line and make those tough calls. We have to be reactive, not proactive. We have to bring either the temperature down or follow the rules as they’re handed to us.”
Fraser is going out at the top of his game, if reluctantly.
Veteran Dan Marouelli is also done after this season, but veteran Bill McCreary, who was also set to retire, has been asked by the league to return for another season and is expected to do so.
“I know I can still do this job,” said Fraser. “My ability God gave me to continue to skate, to work, to enjoy, to communicate, the respect and rapport I have with players and coaches is still there. It’s not gone. I said that I would never stick around beyond my welcome and never cheat the game,” he said.
“The game is first and foremost, but I know I can still do it. When is enough, enough? I’ll be 58 years old. Nonetheless, it’s time.”