Referee Ron Wicks once said that he'd been called more names than the Happy Hooker. "You can't be thin-skinned," he understated.
In a storied career that stretched from 1960 to 1986, Mr. Wicks was one of the National Hockey League's most durable on-ice officials. When he started, at age 20, he was also its youngest. He finished with 1,067 regular season games as a referee – some 2,000 counting his time as a linesman – spending 23 of his 26 years with the NHL.
Mr. Wicks judged 175 playoff games and five Stanley Cup Finals. He was the longest-serving referee in NHL history when he retired.
Recalled as a steady hand and a stickler for rules, he skated alongside the best: Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux and sent them all and hundreds of others to the penalty box. Mr. Orr remained a friend, calling the family several times in the days before Mr. Wicks's death of liver cancer in Brampton, Ont., on April 1 at the age of 75.
In Mr. Wicks's day, the life of an NHL "zebra" wasn't glamorous. Referees and linesmen were given a schedule and had to make their own travel arrangements and hotel bookings. To be sure, there was the odd thrill of a game-winning overtime goal or watching a top player at his best, but there were also challenges, such as breaking up vicious brawls, ejecting players, making tough calls, the endless ribbon of road and the non-stop invective hurled by fans, coaches and even by players – sometimes mumbled under their breath, sometimes openly.
If he had a philosophy, it was that a referee should go unnoticed. "If he does stand out, he's not doing his job," Mr. Wicks said.
He loved the job, his family related, but ultimately, travelling 130,000 to 160,000 kilometres a year got to him.
A sense of humour and short memory helped. "There have been some disappointing moments but you forget them right way," he told an interviewer. "If not, you don't last. The fact that it was fun much of the time helped to keep me in the job so long."
Not only did Mr. Wicks last, but he put all his best recollections into a book. His 2009 memoir, A Referee's Life, crackles with colour, names and stories that can keep a fan mesmerized.
Whenever former coach and current hockey colour man Don Cherry "started to squawk, I would take out my hanky and pretend to blow my nose and wipe an imaginary tear from my eye," Mr. Wicks wrote. For his part, Mr. Cherry told The Globe that Mr. Wicks "was a good, honest referee who always did his best."
Mr. Wicks twice needed police escorts from raucous games, once in Chicago and again in Philadelphia. He also served as a witness in the 1975 trial of Boston Bruin Dave Forbes, who had been charged with felony assault for butt-ending Minnesota North Star Henry Boucha in the eye (it ended in a hung jury). Mr. Wicks felt that on-ice hooliganism and abuse of officials set hockey back and that the sport has only recently begun to recover.
Ronald Thomas Joseph Wicks was born in Toronto on Sept. 21, 1940, the eldest of three children of Charles, a tea salesman, and the former Alberta Brunelle, who worked at a hospital's nursing home. Through his mother's lineage, he gained Métis citizenship, which was a source of great pride.
The clan moved to Timmins, Ont., then Sudbury, where young Ron played midget hockey for two years. "He realized he wasn't very good at it," recalled his daughter Lisa, whom Mr. Wicks would go on to coach, "but he loved the game."
He began refereeing in 1957, earning $2 doing midget games at 7 a.m. "I remember disallowing the winning goal in the finals because of a delayed penalty and the other team won in sudden-death overtime," he recalled to The Globe and Mail in 1988. "And to this day, there is someone there who won't talk to me whenever I return for a visit."
His big break came Oct. 5, 1960, when he became the youngest official ever at his first NHL game, between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. His knees knocked from nervousness. In the stands was league president Clarence Campbell, who informed the young linesman that he'd missed an offside by 20 feet.
Still, Mr. Wicks signed a contract for $2,500 for the 1960-61 season. Linesmen made $40 a game and received a $12 per diem to cover hotels and meals. The best advice he received came from Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake: Be cordial with the players but not too chummy. "I followed that advice for the rest of my career," Mr. Wicks acknowledged. "I could get along with 99 per cent of players during my career. There's not a player I wouldn't sit down and have a beer with."
In 1964, the NHL sent him to the minor American, Western and Central leagues to apprentice as a referee. In his maiden game, in Saint Paul, Minn., two players broke their sticks over each other, then attempted to spear each other with the shafts, then tried to impale fans through the chicken wire that was wrapped around the boards. Fellow official Bruce Hood, also a future NHL referee, was there for moral support.
"I said to Wicksie after the game, 'Welcome to the world of refereeing.' "
He returned to the pros full-time after the 1967 expansion that doubled NHL teams from six to 12.
There were headlines a year later when owner Jack Kent Cooke publicly blasted Mr. Wicks for having "bilked" his Los Angeles Kings out of a division-clinching third-period goal because a player was in the goalie's crease. Mr. Campbell, the NHL president, supported Mr. Wicks.
A courtly man, Mr. Wicks made a habit of greeting players before the opening face-off. "Just drop the bloody puck," snapped the notoriously prickly Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke one night. So Mr. Wicks calmly waved Mr. Clarke out of the face-off circle, pumping the rowdy Philly crowd up even more.
At a laughter-filled celebration of Mr. Wicks's life, attended by more than 100 well-wishers at the Brampton Golf Club, Mr. Hood, a long-time friend, recounted a well-known dislike for Mr. Wicks by legendary New York Islanders coach Al Arbour, who one night hollered at official Richard Trottier (in his first game), "you're the worst referee in the league!"
Skating by the Islanders' bench, the linesman inquired: "What about Wicksie?"
"Trottier," Mr. Arbour replied, "you're the second worst."
The best player Mr. Wicks ever saw? Bobby Orr, who "had three speeds of fast. He would leave me in his wake." His favourite rink was the Montreal Forum – "the Vatican of hockey." And the highlight of his career was working the 1963-64 finals, in which Toronto defenceman Bobby Baun stopped a Gordie Howe slap shot and was taken off the ice with a broken ankle. He later returned to the game in overtime, with his ankle frozen, and scored the game-winning goal. Game seven saw Andy Bathgate score the opening and winning goals in a 4-0 result that handed Toronto their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Mr. Wicks was sidelined in 1976 when a wayward stick hit him in, of all places, his eye. He spent a week in hospital. "The thing that impressed me the most was that I got hundreds of cards from fans," he told The Globe. "And the players and coaches – the same people who used to call me an s.o.b. – came in to visit."
The toughest game he officiated wasn't in the NHL. It was the 1984 Canada Cup contest between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. "These players genuinely did not like each other," Mr. Wicks recalled. "They kicked at the puck soccer- style."
He worked two All Star Games – "a fine testimonial to a grand career," the NHL Officials Association said in a statement.
Mr. Wicks was instrumental in the 1969 formation of the association, which pressed for better pay, working conditions and benefits. He decried the NHL's "lousy" pensions and said he had seen other officials leave the game with virtually nothing to live on. Determined that would never happen to his family, he earned a broker's licence in 1975 and in retirement, sold real estate and worked in the travel business.
He mostly spurned modernizations to the job. Instant replay cameras, he reasoned in the 1970s, were fallible because they couldn't see in three dimensions. And the NHL's addition of a second referee in 1998 was occasionally a good thing but appeared to have removed judgment calls by lone officials.
He leaves Barb, his wife of 52 years, and children, Lisa and Brian. Mr. Wicks was inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Brampton Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Sometimes, the ribbing he took was gentle, as when Sudbury Sports Hall of Famer and one-time NHL forward Jerry (Topper) Toppazzini, on presenting the induction plaque to Mr. Wicks, quipped: "I see you finally have your eyes open."
In a final poetic gesture, Mr. Wicks donated his eyes for corneal transplants and the rest of his body for scientific research.