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It's not all black and white

Referee and Manitoba product Rob Martell reflects on the close of a 1,000-game NHL career

NHL referee Rob Martell (26) shakes hands with Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu (9) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) before Martell's 1,000th game as an official Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. Martell retired after the game.

CHRIS O'MEARA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NHL referee Rob Martell (26) shakes hands with Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu (9) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) before Martell's 1,000th game as an official Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. Martell retired after the game.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/1/2016 (1011 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Imagine a pair of bookends, holding Rob Martell’s career upright. Imagine they are hockey rinks. At the near end is Amalie Arena, one of the NHL’s brightest stages.

The other bookend, humble and dimmer and more prairie-familiar, is a community club in Stonewall. That’s where it all began.

Between those two brackets there was time, almost 40 years. There was travel, countless thousands of kilometres. There was an endless carousel of hotel rooms and airport lounges. There was the work of it all, the tricky calls and on-ice brawls; once, there was getting pelted with beer cans in the middle of Arkansas.

Then it is Jan. 2, 2016, and it’s time to raise that final bookend at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. It was Martell’s 1,000th game as an NHL official, and it would be his last. They had a ceremony for him before the puck dropped between the Lightning and the Wild. Steven Stamkos gave him a stick he and his teammates all signed.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/1/2016 (1011 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Imagine a pair of bookends, holding Rob Martell’s career upright. Imagine they are hockey rinks. At the near end is Amalie Arena, one of the NHL’s brightest stages.

The other bookend, humble and dimmer and more prairie-familiar, is a community club in Stonewall. That’s where it all began.

Between those two brackets there was time, almost 40 years. There was travel, countless thousands of kilometres. There was an endless carousel of hotel rooms and airport lounges. There was the work of it all, the tricky calls and on-ice brawls; once, there was getting pelted with beer cans in the middle of Arkansas.

Then it is Jan. 2, 2016, and it’s time to raise that final bookend at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. It was Martell’s 1,000th game as an NHL official, and it would be his last. They had a ceremony for him before the puck dropped between the Lightning and the Wild. Steven Stamkos gave him a stick he and his teammates all signed.

Now, there is no more travel for Martell, no more glittering big-league lights. There is just his home in Florida, his beer-league hockey team, the rest of his life.

He is 52 years old, and has freshly hung up his stripes. He is no longer NHL referee No. 26. He is just husband to Cindy and dad to two late-teenaged boys.

"It still hasn’t really hit me, because I’ve been home now, let’s see, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday," Martell said, counting the days between his retirement and when the Free Press called him up. "It’s my fourth day at home, and that’s probably the longest stretch I’ve had all season."

Besides, it was still a little too fresh in his mind. One of the last games Martell officiated was a trial by fire, maybe even the answer to an obscure trivia question: who was the last referee to preside over a three-official NHL game? Until Dec. 27, Martell said, the answer stretched back to the 1990s.

Now, it’s Rob Martell in the dying days of 2015, after a cascade of flight nightmares stranded another referee in Austin, Texas.

Going into that game in Dallas, Martell knew it might be a gong show. The Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues have a bruising rivalry, and the referee braced for fireworks on the ice. He’d have to control them without a second pair of eyes. "I just had to suck it up and get those 52-year-old legs moving," he laughed.

The rivals delivered. Watching clips of the game later, it was "bodies everywhere," Martell thought. At one point, a player complained he’d missed a hooking call. "They said, ‘you gotta keep up,’" Martell recalled. "I say, ‘not tonight.’ It’s something I’ll remember because I hadn’t done one of those in probably 14 years."

So it was an old-school send-off, which seems fitting. As if his whole career came full-circle, and ended up back at a scrappy, rough’n’tumble beginning.

New Jersey Devils' Andrew Peters, 25, yells at referee, Rob Martell (right) in Edmonton in March 2010.

JOHN ULAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

New Jersey Devils' Andrew Peters, 25, yells at referee, Rob Martell (right) in Edmonton in March 2010.

Flash back to Stonewall, in the latter years of the 1970s. Martell was a "rink rat" as a teen, as were his buddies. He was a solid player, and would eventually put in a year with the Selkirk Steelers. In the meantime, in those days before the Internet and video games, he was on the hunt for something to do.

Martell’s friend Charlie Pritchard thought of the idea first, that they should start carrying whistles instead of sticks. Maybe they could cash in.

"My brother worked at a grocery store, and he made maybe $2.50 an hour in those days," Martell said. "But you could make $9 or $10 an hour doing kids’ hockey games. We got into it for a couple of bucks, and having some fun, and taking up some free time."

Soon, the teens were hooked. When Martell was about 16, they travelled to Calgary for an referee camp run by NHL officials. By 18, he was officiating in Winnipeg minor hockey games. That wasn’t usual practice at the time, but it was refreshing to get out of the more familiar circles of the Interlake.

"It was hard when you were getting yelled at by people you knew, and sometimes you would end up at their place two days later," Martell said.

Within years, Pritchard and Martell had climbed the ladder up to working WHL games in Winnipeg. After the old Winnipeg Warriors left, they started trekking out to Brandon. The money wasn’t great — they were paid $35 a game to work the lines, and gas cost only slightly less — but it was something.

Then, in March 1984, lightning struck. The Chicago Blackhawks were set to play the old Jets at Winnipeg Arena, but one of the linesmen was sick. Martell got a call to come and fill in, quick. He rushed to the arena on that Wednesday night, no helmet, not even sure what to expect.

Suddenly, he was out on the ice with players such as Jets’ Dale Hawerchuk and Thomas Steen and Blackhawks winger Steve Larmer, and they were fast.

"Certainly, as a young kid, you found yourself watching instead of doing what you’re supposed to be doing," Martell said. "Or things happened that in the leagues that we were working would never have happened. You’re like ‘oh wow, okay. I guess I should have stayed where I was.’ "

He would work another NHL game two days later, this time when the Jets hosted Los Angeles. A bunch of his coworkers from his summer gig at a Winnipeg beverage distribution company were at the game, which made it that much cooler. He got a cheque for $400 and some expenses. He still has it, tucked in a scrapbook.

The next morning, he officiated an old-timers game in Stonewall in frigid cold weather. He wouldn’t hear from the NHL again for another three years.

Referee Rob Martell looks on during the Carolina Hurricanes game against the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia in January 2006.

SCOTT CUNNINGHAM / GETTY IMAGES

Referee Rob Martell looks on during the Carolina Hurricanes game against the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia in January 2006.

That first taste of the show lit the fire, though. In the years that followed, Martell threw himself into moving up the ranks. In 1987, he was invited to a camp for NHL officials; he worked in the OHL, the AHL, even the American college CCHA. Then, in 1996, he skated his first game as an NHL referee. He’d made it.

It’s a strange line NHL officials walk, all at once a part of the spectacle but also set apart. They get to know the players, though Martell found that camaraderie decreased as the years wore on. Back when teams flew commercial, he said, they’d often collide at the same haunts, and leave their roles at the door.

"We used to go out and have beers after lunch, or go play pool," he said. "It just seemed to be more of a group. It just seemed like you could talk to these guys, and you were human... If that happened now, someone might tweet a picture of it and be like, it’s a conspiracy or something."

This world creates a sea of stories, and Martell has his share. There was the time he tried to stop Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson from knocking out New York Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro; in video of the infamous clash, you can see Martell racing to intercept Johnson, but the Penguins goalie blazes past.

"All I remember is DiPietro looking up and going ‘I didn’t know you were a lefty,’ " Martell said. "Johnson smiles and goes, ‘I’m not.’ "

Bad calls? Yeah, he’s made a few, though he hedges on specifics. "I’ve made a lot of mistakes, trust me," he said. "I’m not trying to dodge the question."

Finally, he settles on a big one. It was January, 2014, and the L.A. Kings were playing at Detroit’s famously dimly lit Joe Louis Arena. There were 26 seconds left to play, and the visitors were leading 2-1. That’s when Detroit defenceman Niklas Kronwall launched a rocket from the point.

The puck flew forward, ricocheted off Kings forward Jarret Stoll, then soared up towards the ceiling. It plunged down, crashed off Kings goalie Jonathan Quick’s back and bounced into the net. But the officials had expected the shot to deflect horizontally, so that’s the direction they were looking.

In other words, they didn’t see the puck hit the dark mesh high above the ice. They called it a good goal; the Kings went on to lose in a shoot-out.

After the game, Martell recalled, Kings coach Darryl Sutter flew at them steaming. Soon, Martell and his crew learned that the shot did hit the netting, that the game-tying puck should have been dead. "This is maybe January, but down the road you hope to hell that they don’t miss the playoffs by one point," Martell said.

Back at the hotel, the officials retreated to the downstairs lounge to commiserate over the mistake. They turned on the TV. There, in a clip from the second half of the Hockey Night in Canada double-header, Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella was red-hot and trying to barge his way into the Calgary Flames locker room.

Tortorella would later be suspended for 15 days for the outburst, which nearly sparked a brawl in the arena hall. For the hockey world, it was an outrage. For Martell’s team, in the hours after their flubbed goal call, it was like a gift from heaven. "I said, ‘Boys, we’re on page two,’ " Martell said with a laugh.

Still, they didn’t get off entirely scot-free. "Every time they talk about video review, there’s a clip of No. 26 (Martell) standing there pointing goal," Martell said, but at this point in his career he can take that in stride. "It’s the nature of the beast."

But moments like that one in the hotel, that’s what Martell will miss the most. Because, throughout the highlights of the last 20 years, all the wild games and adrenaline-pumping moments, there were always the players, the coaches, the other officials. A travelling hockey circus, criss-crossing North America together.

Those are the things that won’t quite fit in to the scrapbook Martell still keeps. "It’s been fun, it’s been a good grind, a good ride," Martell said. "I got pictures and things I can look back on. But I’m going to miss the guys."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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