Saturday, April 2, 2016

REMEMBERING RON WICKS


On October 5, 2015, I had the privilege of giving a talk at the Original Six Alumni lunch on the career of former NHL official Ron Wicks. The date of the talk just happened to land on the 55th anniversary of Ron working his first National Hockey League game in 1955.
A short time after the lunch, I exchanged emails with Ron and sent him a picture from the event. In his reply, he wrote, "Thanks Jim, we all had a great time."
Then, before Christmas, I came across a photo (below) and emailed it to Ron to confirm that it was him in the picture. "Yes, it is me and I love it, (I) never saw it before. Carl Brewer is mixing it up with Boom Boom (Geoffrion)."
Sadly, the next email I received from Ron was gut-wrenching. He sent it out to several individuals and it was so kind of him to include me. It read in part: "Hi there friends, My disease has caught up with me and I hope to stick around to watch the Masters, and then soon my journey here maybe ending but continuing from up above the clouds. I'll be keeping an eye on you. Thanks for joining me on my skate around the rink - Ron Wicks."
Ron Wicks past away last night (April 1, 2016) of liver cancer.

Below, is the text from my talk on October 5, 2015:

As a young fan during the latter part of the Original Six Era, it was easy to identify and have some knowledge about the players on each of the teams.
And although they shared the ice with the biggest stars in hockey’s Golden Era, I knew very little about the on-ice officials.
Well, I’m happy to say with the passage of time this has all changed. The publication of books authored by Red Storey, Bill Chadwick and Bruce Hood provided me with a new perspective on those who wore the striped sweater.
Then, earlier this year, I had the fun experience of witnessing 3 referee’s talking about their time in the game. Included in the panel discussion were Bryan Lewis, Bruce Hood and the gentleman I’m going to talk about today – Ron Wicks.
Ron’s 2009 book – A Referee’s Life – served as wonderful and informative companion to his in-person talk. Due to time restrictions, my scope is limited, thus, I highly recommend Ron’s book for greater detail and many more fascinating stories.
On the subject of stories about Ron, I was talking with Ray Scapinello about 10 days ago, and he couldn’t resist telling me this one.  Apparently, Ron wasn’t one of Al Arbour’s favourites. One night Ray was part of a crew working with a rookie referee and Al was constantly badgering the poor guy. During a stoppage, Ray was positioned in front of the Islanders bench when Al began one of his tirades. He told the new guy he was awful and the worst referee he had ever seen. At this point, Ray turned to Al and said to him, “I thought Ron Wicks was the worst referee you ever saw”.  Thinking it over, Al Arbour yelled out, “Hey rookie, you’re the second worst referee I’ve ever seen.” 
To begin, here is some background on Ron Wicks, the young hockey fan.
Like most hockey mad kids growing up in the 1940s, Ron got his fix by listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio and playing road and ice hockey.
Now, by tuning in Hewitt’s broadcast one would think the Toronto Maple Leafs were Ron’s favourite NHL club. Think again. The Detroit Red Wings not the Leafs were his team. Ron’s heroes were Terry Sawchuck and Gordie Howe. 
When Detroit captured the Stanley Cup in 1950, Ron couldn’t hide his jubilation and wore his Red Wings sweater to school. As he pointed out in his book, “for my audacity that got all 60 pounds of me stuffed into a garbage can.”
In 1952, Ron, then 12 years old, moved with his family from Timmins to Sudbury.
At 14, he joined the Sudbury Minor Hockey League and played in the newly built Sudbury Arena, home of the Senior “A” Sudbury Wolves.
His participation in the Sudbury Minor Hockey League eventually led Ron to his career as an official.
“I started in Sudbury and played in the midget league until I was 16 years-old,” Ron told those gathered for the panel discussion.
“When I graduated as a player, I volunteered to become a referee. They said, ‘go buy yourself a sweater and a whistle,’ and I became a referee.”
For the next three years Ron refereed games in Sudbury.
Then, came his big break.
‘I got scouted by Bob Davidson, who was the chief scout of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was scouting the North Country and found Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon. He sent my name into Carl Voss the NHL referee-in-chief.”
The National Hockey League responded by sending Ron an invitation to their referee’s training camp in the fall of 1960.
“I took 2 weeks off from my job as a tax assessor with the City of Sudbury. I came down to Toronto and did a few exhibition games. And low-and-behold, I got hired for $40-bucks and I stuck around for 26 years.”
Ron began his life in the NHL as a linesman.
In one of those exhibition games, Ron had an interesting encounter with Chicago’s huge defenceman, Elmer “Moose” Vasko.
“I remember sitting in the lobby of the Empress Hotel in Peterborough and talking with Elmer Vasko,” Ron stated as he began the story.
He explained to Vasko that he was trying to earn a job in the NHL as an on-ice official. Their conversation ended with Vasko wishing Ron good luck.
Ron picked-up the story about how their paths crossed during the game.
“That night a big brawl broke-out and I came up to Elmer, who was 100 pounds heavier than me. I asked him if he would kindly go to the penalty box. He said, ‘you know kid, you’re right.’ He skated to the penalty box and my boss came in at the end of the period and said, ‘way to break-up that fight with Mr. Vasko.’ The next time I saw Mr. Vasko, I bought him a cold beer.”
On the final day of camp, Voss told Ron he had earned an NHL job and he signed his first pro contract.
At 20 years of age, Ron began his journey by working the lines in a contest on October 5, 1960, and today is the 55th anniversary of his maiden voyage – congratulations Ron!
His first assignment on October 5th was a game between Boston and New York at Madison Square Garden. The other linesman was George Hayes, who Ron noted, “took me under his wing and showed me the ropes in the big leagues.”


Ron’s first exposure to NHL post-season action came in the 1961 playoffs.
One playoff contest Ron worked in ’61 would ultimately become an example of why the officials had to unite as a group.
He spoke in a serious tone when he recalled an incident that occurred.
“I was working the game in Chicago when Toe Blake (coach of the Canadiens) ran across the ice after a three-period overtime game in the Stanley Cup semi-finals and punched referee Dalton McArthur.”
Digging deeper, I discovered that McArthur called a penalty against Montreal’s Dickie Moore and Chicago scored the game-winning goal on the power play. This sent Blake over the deep end.
Continuing the story, Ron commented that, “Toe got fined $2-thousand dollars and Dalton got fired. Then, we started our union a few years later.”
In fact, The Referee and Linesmen’s Association was formed in 1969.
As the 1963-64 hockey season progressed, Ron, now in his fourth term as a linesman, made an important decision relating to his future. He decided, with the leagues blessing, to become a referee. As Ron put it, “when I started as a linesman they gave me a bag of marbles and when I lost all my marbles I became a referee.”
This shift in direction resulted in Ron going to the minors for seasoning. He developed his skills by calling games in the Central Pro League, Western Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
In the last year of the Original Six Era, Ron wore the referee’s armband in 2 NHL games.
When the NHL expanded to 12 teams in 1967, Ron returned to the big-show after a 3-year absence and began his long run as the new sheriff in town.
And what a career he had as the guy wearing the white hat and taking on the difficult job of maintaining law and order in various NHL cities. Here are some of the highlights.
Ron is the youngest person at age 20 to hit the ice as an NHL official when he worked his first game as a linesman in 1960.
On March 3, 1985, he worked game number 1,000 as a referee when the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Rangers at MSG.
On December 14, 1985, Ron established a new record for most NHL games worked by a referee – 1034 – surpassing the previous mark held by Bruce Hood.
In the 1962 All-Star Game, Ron was a linesman and in 1986 he refereed the All-Star Game.
In addition to his NHL duties, Ron worked in the 1984 Canada Cup.
Ron retired following the 1985-86 season and had worked 1,067 games as an NHL referee. When adding in his games as a linesman, the figure is closer to 2,000 games.
He participated in 175 playoff contests and 5 Stanley Cup Finals.
Ron is a member of the Sudbury and Brampton Hall of Fames.

And above all, Ron’s efforts right from the outset with the Referee’s and Linesmen’s Association helped create better working conditions and financial stability for future generations. Similar to the players of the Original Six era, Ron and his contemporaries, like Bruce Hood, helped build our grand game.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Wicks.

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