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.
The feud would carry on to the NHL, where Mr. Pilous coached the Black Hawks.
Mr. Udvari made his NHL debut in 1951, a rookie with a part-time role in a fraternity whose members could be counted on one hand.
After Georges Gravel underwent gallbladder surgery, Mr. Udvari took his place in a rotation that included Red Storey (a former football star and Grey Cup winner), Jack Mehlenbacher (a harness racer by day and referee by night), and one-eyed Bill Chadwick, a legendary official whose hand signals for calling penalties were officially adopted by the NHL in 1956.
The refs wore white dress shirts with black neckties and a V-necked sweater with the NHL crest on the left breast.
Then, briefly, they wore orange sweaters, which were confusing in games featuring teams with red sweaters (Detroit, Chicago, Montreal) and, besides, showed up black on television, an entertainment growing in popularity.
The league adopted the familiar black-and-white zebra sweaters for referees at a meeting in December, 1955.
In a game in Boston during his first season, Mr. Udvari blew his whistle to halt play, though it turned out the goalie was not holding the puck. Just then, Milt Schmidt of the hometown Bruins knocked the loose puck into the net. The Bruins player skated over to the rookie referee, engaging in a spirited conversation that excited the Boston partisans.
“The fans littered the ice with all kinds of garbage, figuring he was giving me hell,” Mr. Udvari told sports writer Jeff Hicks three years ago.
Instead, the player was animatedly inquiring as to the well-being of mutual friends back home in Ontario, deliberately rousing the crowd without incurring the referee’s wrath.
In a game on Dec. 9, 1953, Bud MacPherson of the Canadiens tussled with Eric Nesterenko of the Maple Leafs just as a Toronto line change was taking place late in the game.
To even out the numbers, a quantity of Montreal players left the bench, causing the full Toronto bench to enter the melee. The penalty box was full by the time Mr. Udvari cleared the docket. He called a record 36 penalties, including four majors for fighting and 17 misconducts.
A total of $375 in fines was also assessed. (Oh, and Toronto beat Montreal, 3-0.) Mr. Udvari later described the brawl as the War of 1812 because the fighting began at 18:12 of the third period.
After a decade in the league, the referee looked back on his early days and shuddered at the errors he made.
“It’s a marvel I kept my job,” he said. “I was always in trouble. It was strictly my own fault. I irritated players by giving them penalties sort of triumphantly. I sensed hostility the minute I stepped on the ice. I worried all the time – had two X-rays for ulcers.”
In a game at Boston Garden on March 13, 1955, Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe clipped a streaking Rocket Richard with his stick.
“Rocket was going down the right wing and Hal went to hook him on the shoulder,” Mr. Udvari recalled on the 40th anniversary of one of the most notorious incidents in hockey history.
“His stick came up and cut the Rocket just above the eye. Rocket kept on going, firing a backhand shot that hit the goal post behind Sugar Jim Henry.
“Rocket went around the net. I had my hand up for a penalty [on Laycoe] when Rocket showed me the blood. I said, ‘I got it.’ But he went right after Hal.”
The defenceman had dropped his stick to prepare for a fistfight, but instead Mr. Richard chopped at his adversary with a two-handed swing. The stick nicked Mr. Laycoe’s ear before splintering on his shoulder. Unsatisfied, Mr. Richard grabbed another stick and slashed again. As the two men grappled, linesman Cliff Thompson, a burly part-time undertaker who had played six games for the Bruins before being called away to war, tried to separate Mr. Richard from his quarry.
The official took two punches to the face.
The parties were called to a meeting at the Montreal office of NHL president Clarence Campbell. Mr. Richard explained he struck the linesman by accident, as he was dazed and had blood in his eyes from a gash that needed five stitches to close. An unsympathetic president, who had conducted a long and public feud with the Montreal star, suspended Mr. Richard for the final three games of the season, as well as the entire playoffs. The unprecedented punishment would cost Mr. Richard the league scoring title, as he would be passed by teammate Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion.
Mr. Campbell made the unwise decision to attend the next Montreal home game, where he was pelted with food and rubber shoes. A hooligan reached out as if to shake his hand only to punch him.
The crowd fled the Forum after a gas canister was opened at one end of the rink, and for the next four hours, a mob surged along downtown streets, smashing store windows in what came to be called the Richard Riot.
Mr. Udvari also made his share of controversial calls on disputed goals. In a single Stanley Cup final game in 1962, the referee disallowed two goals. The first cost the Black Hawks, as he blew his whistle to halt play after losing sight of the puck, believing it was in the possession of Toronto goalie Johnny Bower. Instead, Stan Mikita banged the puck home. “Everybody in the country saw the puck – except Udvari,” fumed Chicago’s coach.
Then, the referee waved off a goal by Toronto’s Ed Litzenberger, ruling he had illegally struck the puck when it was above his shoulder. “That was a good goal,” the Leafs skater insisted. “Heck, I’m 6 foot 3, and if I had hit it with my stick above the shoulder it would have gone over the net.”
Mr. Udvari hung up his whistle and No. 1 striped shirt after the 1965-66 season, having officiated 718 regular-season NHL games and another 70 in the playoffs.
He then took supervisory positions with the league. Once off the ice, he had friendlier relationships with players. Gordie Howe once teased him by saying, “I see you finally got eyeglasses.”
He had sold insurance throughout his hockey days, later building a property portfolio including apartment buildings.
Mr. Udvari died in hospital at London, Ont., on Aug. 13. He leaves Colette (née Reinhardt), his wife of 68 years. He also leaves a son, a daughter, three grandchildren and a sister.
His final game as an on-ice NHL official came unexpectedly on Dec. 30, 1978. He was in the press box at Nassau Coliseum in New York as a supervisor when referee Dave Newell took a puck in the jaw and was unable to continue. Mr. Udvari borrowed a pair of skates from the Islanders’ Bryan Trottier, donned a spare zebra shirt and handled the game while wearing suit pants.
The final cameo was remarkable as a rare instance in which a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame returned to the ice.
It is also remembered because Mr. Udvari, seeking to be fair to the end, waved off a goal by Mr. Trottier.
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