Former ECHL Player, Referee Reaches NHL

ECHL.com Note – Wes McCauley played his first professional season in the ECHL in 1993-94 and had 30 points (2g-28a) in 56 regular season games and three assists in three postseason games with Knoxville. He worked the Kelly Cup Finals in 2000 and 2001.

By Rachel Lenzi
Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

The call that brought Wes McCauley into the NHL came on a winter afternoon in 2003.

McCauley and his family were living in Cincinnati, and the phone rang on a rare day off from officiating in the American Hockey League.

“We need you to referee,” the voice on the line told him as he watched his two children, Riley and Emma. “You’ve got to go to Columbus and you’ve got to go now.”

The Chicago Blackhawks were scheduled to play the Columbus Blue Jackets that night and a referee scheduled to work the game was ill. McCauley was expected to be on the ice less than four hours later.

He got in his car and drove to Columbus. It was roughly a two-hour drive and behind him was his wife, Bethany, who cut short a trip to the grocery store and followed with Riley to watch Wes’ debut.

It was a far cry from how McCauley envisioned his NHL debut. A standout player at Michigan State from 1989-93, he was good enough to be drafted by the Detroit Red Wings. But when his dream of playing in the NHL ended with an injury, McCauley did the next-best thing.

McCauley, 35, recently completed his fourth full year as an NHL referee after working four first-round playoff games. He spends the offseason in South Portland with his family.

When McCauley first stepped onto NHL ice, there was a sense of apprehension, but not to any extreme.

“You’re in a position like that, whether you’re playing or officiating, you have a bit of the butterflies,” McCauley said. “But I think what helped me was growing up in the business.”

Then the game began and with it, McCauley’s life in the NHL.

“It was great to see him accomplish what he’s accomplished,” said Bethany McCauley, who coaches girls’ lacrosse at South Portland High. “There are not a lot of referees who can make it to that level, and to see him do that, it’s amazing.

“I remember him just driving everywhere, driving to Canada to work a game, and he was staying in Red Roof Inns in really bad parts of town. It’s exhausting, but he was always ready for it and always willing to do it. That’s what he wanted to do.”

McCauley’s father, John, was an NHL referee and became director of officials until he died in 1989. Wes McCauley grew up playing hockey and learned the rules from both his father and young referees such as Don Koharski and former ECHL senior vice president of hockey operations Andy Van Hellemond –now elder statesmen.

“It’s neat now,” McCauley said. “Our senior officials are the guys I grew up with. They were at the stage where I am right now, and now they are colleagues.”

McCauley spent five seasons playing in the minor leagues before he went to Italy for the 1996-97 season. One teammate in Milan was Jay Mazur, the current Scarborough High coach and a former UMaine standout, who lived with his wife, Kristyn.

Bethany Fenton, a South Portland native, was visiting her sister and only planned to stay seven days in Milan. But she missed her flight back and spent the next three weeks touring Italy with Wes, who became her husband the next year (1998).

Around that time McCauley went through another life-changing event. He suffered injuries to his knee and groin that ended his playing career. He had to consider his options. Leaving hockey wasn’t one of them.

In the late 1990s the NHL began to consider a two-referee system and eventual rules changes. Several officials gave McCauley a word of advice.

“This is the time,” an official told him. “If you want to do it, this is the time that you should do it.”

The NHL Officials Association advises prospective referees to begin by working any games they can and get as much technical and physical training as possible.

McCauley spent his first year working minor-league games in Ontario, then joined the ECHL’s crew before working in the American Hockey League in 2001.

McCauley reached the NHL in a time of transition — immediately before the strike that wiped out the 2004-05 season and at a time when the league’s older superstars like Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull and Scott Stevens ended their careers and gave way to stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

But in transition, the responsibilities of the officials have remained static, with very little room for compromise in being particular in enforcing the rules. Make the right calls. Perform the task quickly and fairly, then move ahead.

“The game is so fast,” McCauley said. “And now, with our new standard of enforcement that we brought in last year, a hook is a hook, an interference (call) is interference, a hold’s a hold. Whereas before, we’d kind of let them go up the ice, give one little tug and then two and then it’s ‘OK, you’ve got me on the third one.’ Now, it’s you get caught the first time, you get a penalty.”

McCauley’s playing experience has lent itself to his job as a referee. He understands the competitive fire that burns in the players, the pain of a slash or the thrill of scoring.

But his job is to judge the players’ actions, not to empathize with them.

Yet like the professional players on the ice, the officials aim for the pinnacle of their sport — to make it to the Stanley Cup finals.

“Each guy, their individual goal is to work Game 7 of the Stanley Cup,” McCauley said. “That’s a goal every year, and that’s what we all strive for.”

McCauley was promoted as a full-time NHL official in 2004. It’s a vocation that goes from September and may not end until June.

It’s a vocation that consists of travel, maintaining the highest level of physical fitness, interacting with an array of player and coaching personalities and remaining alert for an entire 60 minutes.

“Physically, we don’t take shifts off,” McCauley said. “Mentally, we have to be in the game from start to finish.”

And, he added, “At the end of the game, your name doesn’t want to be in that story line of what happened in that game.”

Each officiating assignment is different. The rinks change. The faces of the players change. Like fingerprints, the scenarios are never identical.

A full-time official’s season is made up of 73 regular-season games, five to eight preseason games and if merited, at least one round in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

McCauley maintains the same approach to each day and each game of the season.

“It’s almost like you’re expecting the unexpected,” McCauley said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In the offseason, McCauley takes on the role of stay-at-home dad.

“I’m fortunate that I have Bethany,” McCauley said. “I don’t consider what I do as my job, but I love what I do. Growing up I thought I was going to be an NHL hockey player and I feel I’m doing the next-best thing. I’m still out there on the ice with those guys, right?

“But fortunately for me, Bethany has been real supportive and knows I love what I do. With our travel schedule, there’s times you’re home for three or four days, and then someone gets sick or gets hurt and you get a call that you’ve got to be in Phoenix tomorrow.

“She’s supportive, she’s understanding of what the job entails, and luckily for me I have someone like that who supports what I do and enjoys seeing me doing what I love to do.

“Me, personally, I enjoy what I do. The hardest thing is being away from my family. You miss birthdays, concerts, games, recitals, and that would be the hardest thing to do for any parent. But in terms of being on the ice, I love what I do. I feel I’m fortunate that I get to go out on a nightly basis and officiate, in my mind, the best sport in the world.”