Q&A: Former ref Paul Devorski on Cup Final memories and NHL’s evolution

John Tortorella yells at referee Paul Devorski during a game in 2014. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

TORONTO — Paul Devorski’s tenure in the big leagues lasted nearly three decades, spanning all the way from the reign of No. 99 to the era of No. 87.

The longtime NHL referee was on the ice during the 2001 series that saw Ray Bourque finally earn his first championship, the ones that saw the Oilers and Senators get their last cracks at the Final in ’06 and ’07, the one that saw Sidney Crosby lift his first Cup in ’09.

Of all the Finals he worked, it’s that one in Detroit, a repeat meeting between Crosby’s Penguins and Nick Lidstrom’s Red Wings, that Devorski ranks as the most memorable.

“I remember one game,” Devorski says of his greatest Cup Final memory. “It was Game 7 between Detroit and Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh was ahead. I’m right at the side of the net, and in the last dying moments, Nicklas Lidstrom’s got a wide-open net. And I’m ready to point ‘goal.’ Sure enough, the goalie slides over and makes the save, and it was game over. All of a sudden the place went nuts.”

Wild as those last few seconds on the clock were, it was what happened after the final whistle that made the memory a lasting one for Devorski.

“I go off the ice and get changed, I get my suit on. And I had brought my son up with me, Luk — he was probably 11 at the time,” Devorski says. “I’m standing there watching the ceremony on the ice and I said, ‘C’mon!’ I knew the guy and he opened the door, I walked out onto the rink and brought my son out with me. Sure enough, Billy Guerin comes running over, skating over to me, and gives me a big hug, picked my son up. Mario Lemieux was out there.“

There were the Devorskis, amid the tears of joy, the worn down winners embracing family and friends, the freshly minted ‘Stanley Cup Champion’ hats donned with weary pride.

“I was like, ‘Alright, we better get out of here because I’m going to get in trouble.’ But [my son] never forgot that, that’s for sure.”

Devorski’s got no shortage of memorable tales from his 28 years on NHL ice. The Guelph, Ont., native spoke with Sportsnet about some of the other big-league moments that stand out among the rest:

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sportsnet: Let’s go back to the beginning a little bit — tell me about your earliest days in the game, before you got involved in officiating.

Paul Devorski: I played four years of junior-A in Guelph with the Guelph Holody Platers. One year we won the Centennial Cup — George McPhee was on the team, Brian MacLellan, Brian Hayward was our goalie. I went on to play three years of senior-A hockey after that, decided to pack it in, and then a reporter asked me, ‘You gonna start officiating now?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ Next thing you know, I read the paper the next day, and it says ‘Devorski trades in stick for whistle, going to be a referee.’ So then I just joined the OHA and started reffing.

I guess about three years later, I get a call. He says, ‘Yeah, it’s John McCauley from the NHL, Paul. We’d like to hire ya.’ And I said, ‘Who the hell is this? Who’s pullin’ a prank on me?’ He says, ‘No, really, it’s John McCauley.’ So I went down, met him and I signed up.

That was 1986.

SN: It sounds like a pretty quick turnaround from those early days to getting to the NHL. What about your first game in the league — what was going through your mind leading up to that night?

Devorski: Well, I guess a few things. My dad, he was a referee for 35 years in the OHA, so I guess that’s maybe where I got the bug after I quit playing. My first game was in Hartford. It was a one-man system, I had no helmet on, Kevin Collins was my linesman and Brian Murphy was my other linesman.

I remember Joel Quenneville was playing defence, Kay Whitmore was one of the goalies — he works for the NHL now. Kevin Dineen was on the team, Dave Babych. There were quite a few guys that I refereed that ended up coaching after they got out of playing.

SN: You mentioned your dad — your brother Greg obviously had a long career in the NHL as well.

Devorski: Once I got into it, I guess Greg thought maybe he’ll try it, because he didn’t play as much hockey as I did. He’s a lot bigger than I am — he’s six-foot-four, and he turned out to be a real good prospect for a linesman.

After he got hired we did our first game together that year in Winnipeg. It was pretty cool working with my brother — he did my 1,000th game with me, my 1,500th and he did my last game with me.

SN: What was the first moment in your NHL career where you had to kind of pinch yourself, and just take stock of being at the highest level of the sport?

Devorski: I’m not sure — it was probably my first brawl that I had. I think it was Chicago and Detroit. They were just out there and all 10 guys on the ice were paired up and trying to fight each other. Back then, we usually just picked two guys and put them in the box.

I had quite the melee going on that day, and I got a call from the boss saying, you know, I handled it pretty good but should’ve called a few more penalties. That was my problem back then, I didn’t really call a lot of penalties, I kind of let them play.

SN: Your run in the NHL stretched from the ‘80s up until a few years ago — the league changed so much in that span. What was the biggest change that you noticed in how the game was played over your career?

Devorski: Well, back then we had fights and scrums like every night. That was just part of the game. There was always elbows and charging, and I think we’ve really cleaned the game up now. I think it’s more about speed out there. I don’t think guys are quite as big out there — they’re smaller and faster.

It’s a really skilled game now — I retired because the game was getting so fast. I was 56 when I retired, so it was time to get off the ice.

SN: How did those changes make the officials’ jobs harder, with the game speeding up and there being so much more scrutiny now with social media?

Devorski: They changed the rules so we’re calling all the holding and hooking and slashing on the hands now, which before, we just kind of let most of that stuff go. Now we’ve really cleaned up the game, and I think it’s made it better as far as speed. I don’t think there’s as many penalties a game as we used to have, because I think the game’s so much cleaner. With headshots now, you don’t see too many — you don’t see Scott Stevens going out, laying out a guy every night.

SN: What did you see from players over the years in terms of adjusting to those new rules and changing the way they played the game?

Devorski: I think the players have adapted well, especially the new generation. And I mean we’ve got a new generation of referees too, that have adapted well. Because they’ve been brought up with this system.

Whereas before, when I was coming up, we would kind of let ‘em rock and roll. And you’d call something if you had to. Today, the game’s changed so much, and I think it’s good for the game.

SN: There seems to be a unique relationship between the officials and the players — it’s different than the relationships that those players have with teammates, coaches, anybody, really. What do you think about that unique relationship?

Devorski: Like I said, I played with George McPhee — I was supposed to be the Best Man at his wedding. I was flying from San Jose to Washington and I got delayed and never made it to the wedding, so Pat Quinn was there, and he stood in for me. Soon as I got there, Pat Quinn is giving me [heck] for being late.

I remember a funny story — I did my first game in Edmonton and I’m skating around before the game and I see Paul Coffey looking at me. He’s starin’ at me and he’s starin’ at me. He finally comes up to me and he says, ‘You’re not the same guy that I was so afraid of that played for Guelph.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me, Paul.’ He says, ‘Oh my God, was I ever afraid of you when we played.’ That was pretty funny.

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SN: You were a part of so many key NHL moments in the game’s history. There’s a few that I want to ask you about. First of all, the ’99 All-Star Game, and all the all-time names that were on the ice for that game. What was it like to be surrounded that kind of generational talent?

Devorski: I was in awe. I was in total awe. It was a one-man system, all the big names were playing. I got along really good with them, I just had a good rapport with all the players. I always talked to them, you know. If somebody made a hell of a play, I’d say, ‘Holly jeez, that was a nice play.’ If somebody had a great hit, I’d say, ‘Oh jeez, nice hit.’ I really had a good rapport with the players and the coaches.

SN: You worked two Olympics as well — first of all, what was it like to have hockey take you to Italy for the 2006 Winter Games?

Devorski: I did the gold medal game over there, between Sweden and Finland. Sweden won, and then those guys that were on that team, they were my best buddies ever since they won that gold medal, like I couldn’t do anything wrong.

Mats Sundin, he just wanted to hug me every time he saw me. It’s not like I really did anything — those guys won the game, but I just happened to be reffin’. So that was pretty cool, all the relationships I had with the players over the years. And I get to see a lot of the old guys now that I’m supervising.

SN: You worked plenty of Stanley Cup Finals, and again, so many of those marquee moments in the league’s history. Your first was 2001 with that amazing Ray Bourque moment — what was it like to be part of that one?

Devorski: It’s funny you bring his name up because to this day, when I see Ray Bourque, he just remembers the fact that I refereed in his first Cup ever — he’ll never let me forget that. He hugs me, says, ‘Make sure you call me when you’re in Boston.’ It’s a good feeling that some of these guys remember, you know. They were all pretty good guys.

But I remember Ray Bourque, he was so happy when he won that Cup.

SN: Being there for those two — Bourque getting his Cup, Crosby getting his first Cup — looking back at it now, what does it mean to you to have been part of the history of the game?

Devorski: Well, I guess I never really look at it that way. I never looked at it as a job. When I got on the ice, I was having fun, I was doing what I wanted to do, I was exercising, and I was meeting friends. You meet guys like Ray Bourque, Sidney Crosby — you know, to this day, when I walk into Pittsburgh, I see Mario Lemieux, he comes over and wants to talk about the old times.

I remember Mario, he didn’t like me too much on the ice, because he’d have three guys on his back and I wouldn’t call a penalty. I remember one night, he’s down — two guys dumped him and he’s on the ice — and he’s looking at me across the blue line. Well, he just lets his stick fly — he threw it at me across the ice. It’s slidin’ at me and I kind of just skate so it goes behind me. The [other] referee goes, ‘Devo, you did not see that.’

I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’m not throwing Mario out!’

SN: Your last game in the league was Penguins vs. Flyers in Philadelphia, that rivalry, in April 2015. You mentioned your brother was there. What were the emotions like for you that night?

Devorski: Oh my God. They hate each other, and that game was no different. They were going to do a ceremony during the first period, and they were going to put my face and everything up on the jumbotron, you know, ‘Paul Devorski’s retiring.’ Well, during that period, Flyers fans got the ‘Ref, you suck’ chant going, and they just wouldn’t stop. So the guy called me over and he says, ‘Paul, we’re going to hold off on that…’

Anyways, they did it in the third period. The fans came around, they gave me a pretty good ovation. It was pretty cool, knowing it was my last game. I got to pick my last four games, so I think I went Chicago, Toronto, San Jose and then I ended up doing my last game in Philly. For my last two games, I picked my crew from the west to work in San Jose, and then my brother and my guys from the east worked the game in Philly.

My whole family was there. It was a night I’ll never forget.

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