Brad Kovachik has been punched by Tony Twist, checked by Steven Stamkos and whacked in the mouth by a puck slapped along the boards by Nazem Kadri.
He has been a linesman in the NHL for 22 years – so long that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were still playing when he began.
It is a dangerous and thankless job.
“You remember your injuries and screw-ups,” Kovachik says.
On Friday night in Buffalo, fans will applaud politely as he is recognized for passing an NHL milestone. In New Jersey last week, he officiated the 1,500th regular-season game of his career. He asked the league to delay ceremonies eight days until he was in his own backyard.
He grew up in Woodstock, in Southwestern Ontario, and lives in Fort Erie, about a 20-minute drive across the border from KeyBank Center.
“I never dreamed I would do 1,500 games,” Kovachik says by telephone.
It is Saturday, and in a few hours he will call a game in St. Louis between the Blues and the Boston Bruins. “At the beginning, I did one and just hoped I would get to do a second.”
He was asked to referee for the first time at 12 years of age. As a kid, he earned $4 a game, enough to pay for a few packs of hockey cards.
Now he is 47 and ranks among the senior linesmen in the NHL. He earns upward of US$200,000 a year, and travels all over the hockey-playing world. He has called 147 games during the NHL playoffs, and was selected to work at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“I don’t think I was different than any other Canadian kid,” Kovachik says. “I dreamed of playing in the NHL. I don’t think any kid anywhere has ever dreamed of being a referee.”
He played hockey in his youth and was good, a junior-C level player. The older he got, the more he realized he was not good enough to be a professional, however.
“We all reach a point of knowing we aren’t as good as we think we are,” he says.
He served as a referee as a teenager in the Ontario Hockey Association, and at 21 also began working as a linesman in the OHL.
The referee is responsible for the general supervision of the game and is the only official authorized to assess penalties. Linesmen conduct most faceoffs, keep an eye out for infractions such as icing and offside and are charged with reporting penalties to the referee.
Kovachik was a linesman in the OHL for three years before he was invited during the summer of 1996 to an officiating camp put on by the NHL. A few months later, he was offered a position where he was assigned 40 games in the AHL and 40 in the NHL.
In his first NHL exhibition game, he was socked while trying to break up a brawl in St. Louis that involved Twist. One of the most fearsome enforcers in history, the Blues left winger finished his career with 28 points and 1,121 penalty minutes in 445 games.
“I jumped in to break up the fight a little too quickly,” Kovachik says. He can’t remember the opposing player or team. “It is the last time I ever came into a fight that fast.”
He says intervening during a skirmish is one of an official’s trickiest tasks.
“One of the most important skills you have to learn is how to put out a fire,” Kovachik says. “Sometimes you do it by getting in between, and sometimes you do it by bringing the conversation down to where you are talking man to man.
“Every situation is different. Lots of times, the guys fighting yell at you: ‘Don’t come in, don’t come in.’ It makes our job a heck of a lot easier.”
Ken Hitchcock, the veteran coach of the Edmonton Oilers, calls Kovachik one of the best.
“He goes about things with a lot of class and dignity,” Hitchcock says. “When he calls a game, you know it is going to be under control. He is one of the few officials that can calm down a bench.”
Kovachik worked his first NHL regular-season game on Oct. 10, 1996, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, with the Flyers home to the Los Angeles Kings. One of his most vivid memories came a little later, officiating a game involving the Boston Bruins, his favourite team as a boy. Kovachik says he stood a few feet from Ray Bourque, his idol, and took it all in.
“You are hired, and all of a sudden you are on the ice with people you have watched on TV,” he says. “It was terrifying. You are afraid you are going to make a mistake. It takes a good two years or more to find your comfort zone.”
He has achieved nearly all there is for a man in stripes: officiating during a Memorial Cup, at the World Cup of Hockey, an NHL all-star game, the Olympics and in two Stanley Cup finals (the series between the Kings and the New York Rangers in 2014 and the Penguins and Predators in 2017).
He suffered a sprained medial-collateral ligament in his left knee when Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning star, slammed into him during the 2015 Eastern Conference final. He was helped off the ice the next October when a pass by the Kadri of the Maple Leafs caught him flush in the mouth.
“At least I still have all my teeth,” Kovachik says.
He has watched Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid during their ascents, and on Friday night he will be honoured during his 1,504th game as a linesman in the NHL.
Always, he has one thought.
“When you are growing up, you think you are pretty good player,” he says. “Then you watch these guys up close and you realize, uh, not so much."