Officials do at times have a disproportionate impact on a contest’s outcome (Exhibit A), and fans may revile the men in stripes, but referees themselves are fans of the game and work hard to get the calls right.
Kerry Fraser’s paperback Final Call: Hockey Stories from a Legend in Stripes hit the shelves this week, and Fraser provides fascinating insights into being a professional referee. He shares some unique stories from his up-close view of thirty years of professional hockey.
For the most part, Ol’ Helmet Hair succeeds—yet he still missed some calls, as we Capitals faithful who chanted “Fraser Sucks!” might expect. And, as Fraser admits, he heard those chants loud and clear throughout his career.
Fraser is at his best when telling in-game anecdotes. For instance, he discusses Matthew Barnaby’s removable silver tooth. One of the infamous agitator’s tricks was to pop the tooth into his palm if an opposing player’s stick came near his face, then turn to the referee and show the tooth that the high stick had just “broken.” Apparently it worked quite a few times, even once on Fraser, until word got around to the other refs. Makes you want to smack Barnaby more than ever, eh?
Fraser’s mediation of on-ice conflicts gives one more respect for the man. Mind you, Fraser has a sizable ego, and no matter how much he admits it the ego can be grating at times. Fraser considers a referee as more than just an assessor of penalties, but also as a kind of “morality police” to keep things fair and above-board.
Some would argue that morality is not the purview of an NHL referee (and for the most part I agree). But sometimes that expanded role yielded positive results. For instance, Fraser brokered a peace between Tyson Nash and Theo Fleury, after Nash hurled personal insults at Fleury that well and truly crossed the line — we’re talking “Slap Shot” territory without the humor. During the first intermission, Fraser spoke to Nash’s coach Joel Quenneville (who, to his credit, immediately offered to bench Nash), and the next period began with Nash giving Fleury a heartfelt apology. Regardless of how one feels about this aspect of Fraser’s refereeing, it certainly makes for good reading.
Fraser includes a few Washington Capitals tidbits, such as Dale Hunter telling him, “Frase, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!'” Fraser also looks back at a bench-clearing brawl in the old Capital Center, with Mike Gartner and Rod Langway getting into the fray. And his description of the magical Fenway Park atmosphere for the 2010 Winter Classic is truly terrific.
While Fraser’s ego is apparent throughout the book, he also pokes fun at himself in a charming way — such as including the above pic of 5’7″ (with good posture) Fraser next to Zdeno Chara, or his “Fraser’s Hair through the Ages” photos.
As for some of the book’s missed calls? Fraser would have been better served to have hired a co-writer, or a more stringent editor. To be fair, Fraser’s writing is better than one might expect from a life-long athlete — and hockey refs’ conditioning is almost as intense as players’ (minus the hitting of course), so calling them athletes seems reasonable.
But boy! Does he! Enjoy! Exclamation Points! And he leans a bit too much on phrases like “The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree!” He occasionally detours into Family and Faith — fine topics, to be sure, but not ones to bring up too often in a book of, as the title says, “Hockey Stories”. The book’s opening chapter, detailing his emotions during his final game, is a logical starting point but a bit too maudlin.
Final Call really hits its stride about 50 pages in, when Fraser discusses The Missed Call, Wayne Gretzky’s uncalled high-sticking in Game 6 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals that some say led to the Kings’ victory over the Leafs. From that point forward, Fraser’s hockey stories get most of the focus — which is exactly where the focus should be.
Fraser’s writing is occasionally shaky, and the first-person narrative keeps Fraser as the clear center of every anecdote he relates to the reader. As a memoir of sorts that’s understandable, of course; but there were times the “I”s seemed to dominate the page.
Overall, though, the pros of Final Call outweigh the cons—it’s a worthwhile read to experience the National Hockey League through one of its most respected and controversial referees. Love him or hate him, he’s certainly experienced some amazing hockey moments. Recommended.
[Note: The extra chapter added to the paperback edition is interesting, including a discussion of his ongoing crusade to make the NHL protect players against head injuries. But the hardcover is basically the same book, and at the moment the bargain-price hardcover is cheaper on Amazon than the paperback version.]