Frank Udvari was booed in every building in which he worked.
For 15 seasons, he refereed games during the NHL’s original-six era, a time of train travel, back-to-back weekend games and animosities so acute not even the most judicious of arbiters could please the crowd.
Mr. Udvari, who has died at 90, earned induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, an honour that probably befuddled players who felt they had been unfairly punished in the past.
“I was never a players’ referee,” Mr. Udvari once said. “I called the game by the rulebook and was overly officious for many, many years.”
A hockey referee is a peacemaker set amid a dozen scofflaws, his only weapon a whistle. It is his unenviable task to act as investigator, prosecutor and judge in the world’s fastest sport. Justice is administered swiftly, infraction to conviction to sentencing happening in an instant.
Many a coach and general manager wound up with a lighter wallet after being fined by the league for criticizing Mr. Udvari’s verdicts. Tommy Ivan of the Chicago Black Hawks called him “gutless,” a charge later repeated by Detroit’s Sid Abel. Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs declared him to be “the worst referee in the league.” Frank Selke of the Montreal Canadiens wanted him banned from working games at the Montreal Forum. At least once, Mr. Udvari needed a police escort from the ice to the officials’ dressing room at the Forum.
Disgruntled fans tossed orange peels and other debris at him, while also launching eggs, bottles of ink and, in Detroit, the occasional octopus onto the ice. The referee’s workday included being bruised, punched, and crunched in the corners by hell-bent skaters.
Once, Lou Fontinato carelessly slashed Mr. Udvari in the face, opening a gash that needed six stitches to close.
For all that, Mr. Udvari missed only two assignments during his NHL career, both games on the same weekend as he tended to a coincidentally sick parent and an ailing wife.
In the days when a single referee worked a hockey game, Mr. Udvari endured hours alone – on trains, in hotel rooms, in restaurants dining on a pregame steak – before working for three hours in a crowded arena where he might be the only neutral observer amid a braying mob of partisans.
He handled his share of melees and donnybrooks over the years, including a game with a notorious stick-swinging duel involving Maurice (Rocket) Richard, whose subsequent suspension led to rioting on the streets of downtown Montreal.
Known for wearing well-tailored suits off the ice, Mr. Udvari had what at the time was described as dark features – a slight pompadour, black eyebrows, a blockish head.
He was in good shape, spending two hours daily working on stops and starts on his skates, and was known for hoisting himself off the ice by grabbing onto the top of the glass above the boards.
Frank Joseph Udvari was born to Eva and Martin Udvari on Jan. 2, 1924, at Srpski Miletic, a village in what is now part of Serbia. He came to Canada from Yugoslavia at the age of eight.
A mill owner in his homeland, Martin Udvari worked in a tire factory in Guelph, Ont., before taking a job as a janitor. Frank did not learn to skate until he was 12. He is listed as playing a single Junior-B game for the Kitchener Greenshirts.
As a youth, he showed greater promise on the diamond than on the ice. In 1949, he employed a deft glove and enjoyed a high batting average while playing first base for the Galt Terriers of the Intercounty Major Baseball League, a semi-professional circuit in Ontario.
Mr. Udvari returned to the rink for the 1950-51 season as a referee for the Junior-A Ontario Hockey Association.
In a 1951 game, he assessed a bench penalty to the St. Catharines Teepees for banging their sticks on the side of the boards before a faceoff. (The Teepees were trying to alert teammates on the ice they had too many skaters.) The penalty incensed Teepees coach Rudy Pilous, who hauled his team off the ice. The referee then declared the game forfeited.
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