SUN Hockey Pool

What's a Saturday night worth when a guy can't get booed?

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph (L) chases referee Mike Leggo after he was given a two...

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph (L) chases referee Mike Leggo after he was given a two minute penalty for slashing in Uniondale, New York, November 23, 2001. (Reuters/RAY STUBBLEBINE)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:07 PM ET

EDMONTON - When Mike Leggo goes to work, it means being jeered and taunted and endlessly second-guessed by critics so infuriated by his decisions they sometimes even resort to pelting him with garbage.

And he misses it dearly.

Maybe not those cups of beer hurled in anger from the 20th row, but he certainly longs for the action and adrenalin that has lit up his winters for as long as he can remember.

Until now.

"I miss the camaraderie and the game itself, being out there, having players mad at me, the frenetic pace of the game," the veteran NHL referee said. "Sweat in my eyes, trying to stay out of the way of the puck, getting good sight lines, I miss that challenge of it."

You're not alive until 16,000 people tell you that you suck.

"We realize we're the foil of every game, no matter what, and that's fine," he said with a laugh. "The fan reaction, the player reaction, the emotion, the excitement, the competition -- once you're used to that, once you've been doing it forever, that's what guys who retire miss the most."

Leggo hasn't entered into in anything as peaceful and satisfying as retirement, though. Instead, he's caught between two warring factions, the NHL and the NHLPA, without any say in when a hopeless standoff that's costing him his livelihood will be over.

It's a feeling of total helplessness.

"Absolutely," the 48-year-old father of two said. "We feel like we're just out here on a wire, hanging on. And when it's not your fault, it adds to the discomfort level."

Referees are trained to be objective, so Leggo isn't interested in handing out any misconduct calls in this game. What's the point, when both sides already have done enough name-calling and finger-pointing to embarrass a fourth-grade class?

He, like everybody else not named Bettman or Fehr, it seems, just wants a quick and fair solution.

"We work for the league and we can understand their position, but we also understand how tough it is to be an NHL player," he said. "We have no opinion on who's right or wrong on this, I just hope they can all come to an agreement so I can get back to doing what I love to do."

Like feeling the cold wind on his face as he races down the ice. Like making an honest living. This isn't defenceman Ryan Suter, whose pile may shrink to $86 million from $98 million because of the lockout -- referees start their careers late and finish them early, and are being hit hard by the second lockout in seven years.

"Our average guy comes on board in his 30s and is going to be gone at about 53 years old," Leggo said. "That's not a lot of time to make their money. It's not good on the retirement planning when you've missed a whole year, and now this."

So he waits at his home in Temecula, Calif., just outside of San Diego, which is as good a place to wait out a lockout as you'll find. Instead of flying across North America calling it like he sees it, Leggo's days are spent chauffeuring his two daughters to school and activities and finishing up his master's degree in sports management.

"I don't understand how my wife survives when I'm not around," he said. "It's busy enough with the two of us here."

The KHL isn't accepting referees at the moment, so he tries to keep sharp whatever way he can, knowing it could be a short turnaround when the pucks finally drop.

"I play hockey a couple of times a week, go to the gym on the other days and volunteer with referees in junior leagues in San Diego," he said. "Our leadership made it clear that we have to be ready to go at a minute's notice."

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


Videos

Photos