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Long-time NHL referee Bill McCreary, 55, refereeing the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers in Buffalo, NY on March 25, 2011. (Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Long-time NHL referee Bill McCreary, 55, refereeing the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers in Buffalo, NY on March 25, 2011. (Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail) (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

NHL Weekend

The last whistle Add to ...

On Saturday in Washington, Bill McCreary will step on an NHL ice surface for the 2,034th and final time, completing a career that began in the same city almost 27 years ago.

When the game between the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres ends, if the self-effacing McCreary were so inclined, he could say he is going out as one of the best NHL referees ever to put on stripes. Few would argue, including Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who was once the NHL director of hockey operations and McCreary's boss.

"When we had a hot spot, we had a handful of guys we could put in there and he was one of them," Burke said. "We could put him in any situation. Threats, prior fights, suspensions, whatever was going on before that game, we could put him in there and know he would keep the lid on the pot."

Asked if the NHL game he is leaving, with its rules designed for speed and flow, is better now than when he started, McCreary offered the same answer he gave an NHL GM recently: He's not sure.

"I had the privilege of being on the ice with Marcel Dionne and his Three Crowns line and with Gilbert Perreault and the French Connection and the Islanders of the 1980s," he said. "Those players to me were as skilled as any today. And they played through all the hooking, holding and interference that we were taught not to call because that was the way they wanted the game called.

"But if you want to see speed and go and flow, then you can say without a doubt today is a better game. I was fortunate to be part of all of it."

One thing McCreary is sure of is the season-long controversy over concussions and hits to the head is overblown. He does not think the league needed to bring in rule 48, which outlawed blind-side hits to the head, because it already had rule 21.1, which allows an official to give a match penalty to a player who deliberately attempts to injure another player and subjects him to further discipline from the league.

"Had it been examined enough, I believe the match penalty would have been more than sufficient [to deal with head shots]" he said. "It goes to the same desk. It gets to [NHL director of hockey operations]Colin Campbell, who would then rule on it.

"But it's a credit to the media. They've blown it out of proportion in certain ways."

However, McCreary is not saying the NHL does not have a problem with concussions. "Is it fair to say there is a crisis in our game?" he said. "I'd say it's fair, but it has to be studied.

What he says needs to be examined are issues like fighting, the rules, arena design (including the glass and posts around the ice surface) and player equipment.

McCreary sees equipment as one of the biggest problems because some players still wear outdated, inadequate gear from their younger days and others play with the shoulder and elbow pads covered by hard caps that can cause a lot of damage in collisions.

Most of the trouble, McCreary believes, comes from a small number of players who do not respect their peers and go head-hunting. But the small number means it should be easy to stamp out.

"I really think it is," he said. "I don't think it's as big an issue as we're letting on.

"Players used to check the puck carrier and check the puck. They never used to try and separate the head from the shoulders. That's what they do now. That is something the players can control."

One thing McCreary is proud of about the undying controversy around the subject is "there's been very little said about the officiating. It's all about players being hurt and the suspensions. I think that's a credit to all the guys I work with."

Those questioned about McCreary's work all mentioned he is a communicator, something of a dying art among today's referees.

Broadcaster Harry Neale was a head coach in the days of the old one-referee system and said: "I was happy when I read the referee was going to be McCreary. I thought he managed a game better than most.

"He would talk to you if there was a problem you didn't understand or you needed a clarification," Neale added.

McCreary says communication is "a tool you have in your toolbox as a referee" along with making sure you are physically fit enough to keep up with the speed of the game and mentally agile enough to make the right call on instinct instead of stopping to think about every move.

But it may be the most important tool.

"If you are able to communicate, in a lot of cases you can bring down the emotional level when it starts to rise and looks like things are going to happen," he said. "If you can be proactive and communicate to a player or coach, I think it eliminates calling some penalties and creates a level of respect between you and the player."

As he made his way through the NHL in his last two weeks, McCreary received tokens of respect from his peers, the players and coaches. Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger presented him with a team sweater autographed by the players and Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma did the same with a Sidney Crosby sweater.

Fellow referee Tim Peel gave McCreary a special bottle of wine from a California winery engraved with his important career statistics: 1,737 regular-season games, 15 Stanley Cup finals, 44 Stanley Cup final games (the most by an NHL referee) and 297 playoff games.

McCreary, 55, was supposed to retire a year ago, but was asked to stay another year by Terry Gregson, the NHL director of officiating. There will not be another request because McCreary says it is time to go.

"The way the game is played you have to work out to keep up," he said, adding he is ready to leave the grind of the physical and mental preparation behind.

He decided to end it in Washington because that was where his NHL career began rather than go through what would surely be a media event in Toronto, which is not far from his hometown of Guelph, Ont.

The future is up in the air right now, although McCreary is talking to Gregson about a job with the NHL as a mentor, coach and perhaps a scout of younger referees. "I'm hoping to stay in the game in some way," he said.

McCreary was involved in few officiating controversies over the years, another tribute to his excellence, although he was on the ice for the famous Brett Hull goal in the 1999 Stanley Cup final.

Hull had his toe in the crease when he scored the Cup-winning goal for the Dallas Stars against the Buffalo Sabres and, despite the zero-tolerance approach on such incidents in force at the time, Gregson, who was the referee at the net, allowed the goal.

To this day, Sabres officials and fans insist it was the biggest injustice in NHL history. McCreary begs to differ. He says Bryan Lewis, then-NHL director of officiating, called down to the ice to confirm the call on the goal was legitimate.

"In layman's terms, it was a good hockey goal," McCreary said. "By the letter of the law, the way the rule was written that year, I suppose it could not have been allowed but I defy anyone to say [Hull]interfered with the goalie."

Such is the regard for McCreary that even Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who feels to this day his team was robbed, managed a one-liner when it was mentioned McCreary admitted he was on the ice for that goal.

"Man, he's got to let that go," Ruff said, deadpan.

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