TORONTO — For the 18,000-plus in the crowd that night at Madison Square Garden, the image is likely burned into their minds.
Wayne Gretzky gliding through the herd of teammates and opponents gathered on the ice, hands on his knees, ’99’ in red and white on the back of that always-billowing blue Rangers jersey. Then, that final sombre lap — helmet deposited on the bench to allow the two million peering through TV screens to feel the emotion of the moment, one glove to the sky in appreciation of all those who’d watched him not only on this night, but every other one, too.
It was April 18, 1999, the final game of The Great One’s prolific big-league reign. One last spin around the rink after one last game. While most recall that moment as a grainy image on a TV screen — or, if tremendous luck had been on their side, from their seat in the Garden crowd — Bill McCreary’s recollection came from a different vantage point.
The longtime NHL referee had the unique privilege — and challenge — of officiating No. 99’s final game, of being right there watching all the theatrics play out at ice level as the greatest mind to ever compute and calculate on NHL ice did so for the last time.
But looking back on it now, the moment that sticks out most to McCreary from that night isn’t one that came during those 60 minutes of gameplay, or the memorable on-ice celebration in front of the cameras afterwards.
It was a brief exchange that took place right before, a quiet reminder of Gretzky’s enduring class.
“Before the game started, he took his one glove off and stuck out his hand, like he wanted to shake my hand,” McCreary recalls. “And he said, ‘Thank you.’ So we shook hands, and I said, ‘No, thank you for being such a pro, and for what you’ve done for the game.'”
The veteran referee had already logged 17 years in the NHL by that point, making him a decorated pro among pros. But even with nearly two decades of games under his belt, the importance of that particular evening and what it would mean forever after was abundantly clear to all involved.
“You work a lot of years to achieve a lot of things, and when our boss decided I should work Wayne’s final game, it was a tremendous honour to be involved in that,” McCreary says. “And Wayne was a tremendous pro through the whole game, from beginning to end. We had pictures with him, the two linesmen and myself, at the end of the second period before we went back to the ice. … It was exciting, it was a big moment in the history of our game.”
No. 99’s final spin was hardly the only marquee moment of McCreary’s 29-year run in the big leagues. It wasn’t even his only historic finale — the Guelph, Ont., native also officiated the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, the final tilt during 11 Stanley Cup Finals, the gold medal finale at three Winter Olympics.
With no shortage of memories from those times in the fire, the Hall of Famer caught up with Sportsnet to reflect on the lessons learned from his eventful run.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sportsnet: That moment with Wayne ahead of his final game in ’99, it’s a reminder of how unique the relationship is between players and officials — how do you view that relationship?
McCreary: Well I think as time goes on and you’re in the game longer, it’s not so much that you become friends — what happens is that you learn to respect one another more. You don’t develop friendships per se, where you’re inviting each other to backyard barbecues. You develop this incredible respect for one another, both as the player and what he does to play at the high level that they play at every night, and the official, and the pressure that the official is under every night to perform his duties as best as he possibly can.
And I think that respect filters over into your bosses. I was selected to work 15 Stanley Cups by four different management teams, and to me that’s a huge honour to be able to say that, because four different management teams thought I was good enough to work in the Stanley Cup Finals. When I did retire, I retired with a couple records in place — more playoff games than any other referee, more Stanley Cup Final games than any other referee.
So, I think the respect within the industry from players and coaches, it allowed me to achieve some great numbers throughout my career.
SN: Thinking back through all those Cup Finals you worked, which memories stand out most to you?
McCreary: You remember them all. I mean, I remember my first one in 1994 — Game 2 in Madison Square Garden between the Rangers and the Canucks. First period was like a blur, it was so exciting, so much pressure. You know, it’s the only game at the pro level going on that night in the world. And to be part of it was such an honour and a privilege.
As time goes on, you get to appreciate and enjoy them more. I was on the ice for 11 presentations of the Cup, so that meant I did the final game in that particular series 11 times. They were all phenomenal. I mean, the Pittsburgh and Detroit rivalry, and the Calgary-Tampa Bay rivalry — which nobody ever thought would have the magnitude that it did.
There’s just so many highlights over the years. The Game 7s within the Stanley Cup Finals — when you’re selected to do a Game 7, that’s the ultimate.
SN: When you get into those Cup Final Game 7s, the pressure is ramped up so high for everybody, but especially the officials with the scrutiny that comes with that responsibility. How did you handle that pressure?
McCreary: There’s tremendous pressure. There’s tremendous pressure on everyone — both teams want to win the Stanley Cup. It becomes a one-game tournament. They’ve played three games and won three games in that particular series if you’re going into a Game 7, and everybody’s well aware of the situation.
The players play very disciplined, the coaches preach discipline to them. Obviously a penalty can affect the outcome of the game. The official still has to do his job and, you know, I tried to keep it very simple. I tried to keep the game fair and safe. And when the players know they’re playing in a safe environment, and they can play fairly against one another, they can play hard. But they can’t cross the boundaries.
They are very, very, very well aware of making a mistake that could cost their teammates the outcome of the game. So, they act accordingly. It’s a lot of fun to work them, but it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of pressure.
SN: After having been a part of so many key moments throughout the sport’s history, are you able to step away from it and appreciate it the way fans do?
McCreary: Going to the Olympics really brought to light how professional our players are. In 1998 when we went to Japan, in Nagano, it was the first time that the National Hockey League participated in the Winter Olympics. I was one official who was selected to participate, and I end up being selected to officiate the gold medal game between the Czech Republic and Russia. And it was an honour obviously, a one-game knockout again.
What happens is you recognize that you are refereeing the best players in the world at that moment, but those 40 players — and the coaches from both teams — are the same players that you’re refereeing in the National Hockey League. So for me, it was like red team against the blue team.
It wasn’t about the countries that were playing, it was about the players and coaches who were participating — I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to perform to the best of my ability. That’s the way I made my living officiating those people each and every night in the National Hockey League.
SN: One of those nights was the final night of NHL hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens in ’99. What do you remember about that game?
McCreary: Well I was a big fan of all the old arenas, and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto obviously was one of those. The Chicago Blackhawks, they brought the gentleman on the ice who scored the very first goal in that arena — it was Chicago playing against Toronto — his name was Mush March. They brought him out and he dropped the ceremonial puck. So right from the beginning of the game, to be part of all of those wonderful things, to close down such a historic building, was a huge honour.
SN: Looking at the decades-long run you had in the league, the game changed so much over that span. What were the biggest changes you saw in terms of how the game evolved over your tenure in the league?
McCreary: When I started, we expanded from 16 teams to when I left there were 30 teams. And it’s amazing over time, some of the rule changes, leading up to 1999 when we put two referees on the ice — that was a huge change in hockey. The removal of the red line, another huge change in hockey. The calling of interference, hooking, holding, maintaining an NHL standard to allow the skill players to play and demonstrate their skill-set — everybody says the game is faster and more entertaining today because of that. So there’s been a tremendous amount of change over the years that have advanced the game of hockey.
SN: How do you think those changes affected the officials’ job?
McCreary: When you were refereeing by yourself, you were in charge of the hockey game along with the two linesmen you were working with. But you were in charge — you were refereeing at both ends of the ice and you were refereeing all over the ice. And you know, it was on your shoulders when something went wrong.
When we implemented the two-referee system in 1999, it took many, many years — and there was a huge learning curve for all of the officials involved — to learn how to share the ice surface, to learn how to support one another, to learn how to become good teammates. And I believe that our staff that we currently have are really up to speed on all three of those areas.
SN: In 2014 you were given the sport’s greatest honour with a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame — how do you feel about your legacy in the game?
McCreary: Well listen, I was just an official in the NHL. When I was refereeing in the playoffs, you always wanted to go to the next round, to be selected to the next round, and you always hoped to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, and not everybody is able to do that in their careers.
When I retired — or even when I was working — the furthest thing from my mind was the Hockey Hall of Fame. So when I received the call from John Davidson and, respectfully, the late Pat Quinn on June 23 of 2014, it was such a surprise, such a shock, but such an honour to be enshrined in such an unbelievable building with all those legends.
Every year when I go back with my wife, I’m just so honoured and so taken aback that I’m part of it, that I was selected to be part of it.