Ref Devorski on retirement: ‘I’m ready to go’

Watch as the San Jose Sharks shake hands with referee Paul Devorski after he refereed one of his final NHL games.

“I never wanted to be a ref,” Paul Devorski was saying over the phone, 26 years after his first NHL assignment. “My Dad was a ref for 35 years, and he was always gone.”

Bill Devorski worked junior games out of Guelph for even longer than his sons Paul and Greg, a linesman, have worked as National Hockey League officials. But a quarter century later Paul, the eldest remaining of eight Devorski children, has his Dad and a hockey writer to thank for a long career in stripes, a delicious fact we’ll personally not let him soon forget.

“I was playing Senior A one year and getting tired of it, so I quit. A reporter says, “Are you going to referee like your Dad?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know… Maybe.’ The next day it’s in the paper: ‘Devorski trades in stick for whistle.’”

A few years later he was dropping the puck at his first NHL game — New Jersey at Hartford, Oct. 14, 1989 — with rosters that included players like Joel Quenneville, Ron Francis, Dave Tippett and Ray Ferraro. These days, those men are all wearing suits to NHL games. Only Devorski is still packing his skates to the rink.

“Honestly, I’m ready. I’m ready to go,” the 56-year-old told Sportsnet this week. “It’s so fast now, I don’t want to embarrass myself. I want to get out before I do that.

“Some of these kids are 18 years old! That defenceman in Florida, (Aaron) Ekblad, is 18 for cryin’ out loud.”

On Sunday Devorski will drop the puck on his final game opening faceoff. It will be regular season game No. 1,594, an afternoon tilt between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center. He has worked the buildings in Pittsburgh, Philly, New Jersey and Washington the most, all drives from his home in Harrisburg, PA.

Devorski’s last Western game was Wednesday in San Jose, where the Sharks players lined up to shake hands with him post-game, the way the Blackhawks had two nights earlier in Chicago. On Sunday he’ll have Greg on the lines, and has hand picked buddies Dan O’Halloran and Steve Miller to round out that final officiating crew.

“Hopefully it’s not too emotional for me, but I’m kind of a softie,” he said. “I know I got real emotional in Chicago the other night, so I don’t know what it will be like in Philly.”

His father’s health won’t allow him the trip from Guelph, but Devorski will have plenty of family in the stands. On the ice, Devorski has been part of the NHL family for years now, even if the anonymity of the zebras has distanced even a veteran ref from hockey fans somewhat.

“It’s the people in the game who need to know who they are, they’re just as well know with them.” said Devorski’s boss and friend of 25 years, Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom. “Devo is one of those salt of the earth guys who talks with the guys who shovel the ice, the security guys at the door, to the coaches and players. He’ll go down as one of the very best as far as communicating with the people inside the game.”

To that end, Sidney Crosby sent a signed stick down the hallway in Pittsburgh last week. Kimmo Timonen, who remembers Devorski from the 2006 Olympic gold medal game, orchestrated the handshake line in Chicago.

For his most memorable moment in the game, Devorski was perfectly positioned in 2009 when Marc-Andre Fleury made that last second stop on Nicklas Lidstrom to preserve Pittsburgh’s Cup victory. Like all of us he thought Lidstrom’s shot was going to tie the game, but watching the replay, the old ref’s hands don’t even twitch when the shot is taken.

“Two seconds later the game was over. That might be the best thrill I’ve had in the game,” he said.

Of course, referees are never remembered for the calls they got right, though Devorski’s biggest mistake was something none of us would even have spotted. It was March 26, 1997 — Bloody Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena — when Darren McCarty exacted revenge on Claude Lemieux for the dirty hit that busted up Kris Draper’s face the previous spring.

There were 18 fighting majors handed out that night, but it was the game misconduct Devorski didn’t call that he remembers today:

“McCarty grabs Lemieux off the opening draw and starts beating the &%@# out of him. I should have given McCarty two, five and a game. But me being stubborn, and thinking that I didn’t like what Lemieux did to Draper, I only gave McCarty two, five and 10. That keeps him in the game.

“Sure as heck, the game goes into overtime, and who do you think scores the winning goal in OT? McCarty. As soon as I get off the ice, (Colorado GM Pierre) Lacroix is standing right in the middle of the doorway to the referee’s room. And he’s hot.”

The hockey fan in Devorski wouldn’t allow him to toss McCarty that night, because McCarty was only doing what people in the game perceived as right. I’m not sure I rank that as a mistake at all. Nor did his supervisor at the time, one Brian Burke.

Today, video replay and the art of the GIF expose every real and perceived mistake a referee makes.

“But here’s the better side,” Walkom says. “Before, a referee had to be absolutely trusted on close plays. Today, for the most part, calls that you made are reaffirmed by video. You get more apologies today because of video review, from guys who see the replay during the intermissions.”

And, other times, the ref is simply wrong. Devorski was never afraid to admit that.

“That’s the mark of a great official,” Walkom said. “Admitting you’re wrong. Guys will come up and say, “He got me with the stick. I watched it.’ (The player) wasn’t sure either. So you’ll say, ‘Hey man, I missed that one.’

“Devo understands the role of the coach, the player, and the role of the official. He has enough confidence to know when to be a hard-ass, to know when to be soft, and when to be humble. To recognize what the game needs at that moment. He has that gift.”

Devorski’s scariest fighter was Derek Boogaard, and the classiest player he ever met was Joe Sakic. Mario Lemieux amazed him from up close, just as he did us from afar.

Now, he’ll skate away as a quiet servant of the game. Well liked and respected at ice level, but a guy who could walk the concourse of any NHL arena and never get recognized.

Exactly the way a good ref wants it.