In that bygone era of the colourful National Hockey League referee, the only thing that was black and white about Mick McGeough were the stripes he wore through 20 seasons and more than 1,000 games.
Helmetless and with his name emblazoned on his back, while players came and went there wasn’t a hockey fan who didn’t come to recognize McGeough’s vivid, controversial style.
McGeough died in a Regina hospital early Saturday, felled by a stroke he suffered Sunday. He was just 62, and working as a supervisor of officials for the NHL as he readied himself for full retirement.
He’ll be remembered as a colourful, controversial official, with a last name that matched a famous cartoon character known for his poor eyesight and lack of better judgement. The fact that McGeough became an NHL referee was testament to his thick skin and steeled backbone.
“Either that, or I’m not too smart,” he once joked, pausing to think. “Likely the latter.”
Famously toppled by a sliding Toronto goalie Curtis Joseph, who had charged into the corner to argue a McGeough goal call during the 2000 playoffs, McGeough was known for signalling a goal — or calling one off — while standing on one leg and waving his arms in a formation other officials had a affectionate nickname for.
“Doing the helicopter,” said veteran referee Rob Shick, who goes back to their early days coming up in the Western Hockey League with McGeough. “I always thought he was auditioning for the Karate Kid movie. But if you know Mick’s personality, he’s a very intense person. Like, he sweats during lunch.”
Kerry Fraser had his trademark hair, back in the pre-helmet era. Don Koharski has the donut incident, born one night in New Jersey and brought to the screen as Officer Koharski in the movie Wayne’s World. Bill McCreary has the ultimate motorcycle cop’s moustache.
But through 20 NHL seasons nobody was ever confused with McGeough, a Regina boy who raised horses in his spare time.
“Aw, sometimes I exaggerated calls,” he admitted in a 2008 profile. “It’s not like you think about it — your instinct just takes over. You are so into the game. And getting excited isn’t a bad thing, is it? You get so wrapped up in the game, so… into the moment.”
For a hockey official, their legacy usually boils down to a moment or two that they remember — or that they will ultimately be remembered for. A good call, or more often, a missed one.
Of his first playoff game, he recalled, “I fell flat on my ass right off the draw.” His first Stanley Cup Final was Carolina-Edmonton in 2006: “It took so long to get there. Probably the best feather in my cap.
“Edmonton is one of the best places to work in the league,” he added. “Anyone who cares that much about their hockey? How can you not love working there?”
Alas, Edmonton became the site of what McGeough recalls as his biggest gaffe. The Oilers trailed Dallas by a goal one night when Shawn Horcoff won a faceoff with less than 10 seconds to play. Horcoff drew the puck back, and it eventually found its way into the net for a dramatic tying goal.
But as the crowd erupted, there was McGeough, doing The Helicopter.
He thought he had seen Horcoff pull the puck back with his hand, and disallowed the goal. Replays later showed he did not, and within minutes after the game McGeough ‘fessed up that he’d gotten it wrong. He felt awful then, and still did nearly two-and-half years later.
“I screwed the call up. It was flat out wrong. Didn’t see it the right way,” he said. “Shawn Horcoff is such a nice man. I said, ‘I apologize. I screwed that call up.’ He said, ‘You haven’t made many mistakes in your career. Don’t worry about it.’”
Said then-Edmonton head coach Craig MacTavish: “He’s kind of a like the villain in All Star Wrestling. The kind of guy the fans love to hate.”