“It was so fitting for his career, a guy that’s been part of so many big games to end his career on a game that was decided in a shootout to decide who goes to the playoffs.” – Referee Kelly Sutherland.
On Sunday, April 11, an NHL legend reached the end of the road.
Kerry Fraser, a 37-year veteran referee, put the final touches on a career that included more than 1,900 regular season NHL games and nearly 300 playoff games. Best known for his flamboyant hairstyle and a missed high-stick call many moons ago, Fraser was an NHL staple, immediately recognizable to even the fair-weather fans.
A few months ago, when it was determined Fraser’s last game would be a Flyers-Rangers tilt in Philadelphia on the last day of the regular season, many figured both teams would already be in the playoffs and the game wouldn’t have any great meaning.
But in the turbulent sporting world nothing is predictable and it turned out to be life and death for the two rivals seeking a spot in the post-season.
The referee Fraser chose to work his last game with, Kelly Sutherland, started in the NHL 11 years ago, a mere nano-second when compared to Fraser’s longevity. And while the importance of the game took precedence and all the press was directed towards Fraser, it was a special moment for Sutherland as well.
“It was huge, because when you’re growing up as a player you’re always looking up to guys you admire and it’s no different in our field,” Sutherland said. “When it was a (career) road I decided I wanted to take seriously at 15 or 16, he was the guy you saw on TV all the time.”
When Sutherland was 18 he attended a referee school for the Western League and Fraser was an instructor. Having never met him before, Sutherland was finally able to come face to face with his icon and the two got along right away.
Because they have similar 5-foot-7 statures, Sutherland says he took a lot from Fraser’s game, from judgment to positioning to how to properly handle certain situations, and implemented it into his own work. As the years progressed, the two became good friends and the lessons never stopped.
“If you would have asked me at 16 years old when I was reffing and watching the guy on TV if that day would ever happen, I would have said ‘Not likely,’ but it’s great how it turned out,” Sutherland said. “He became a great teacher, but also a great friend.”
Sutherland said that because the last game had such a large impact on both teams involved, it was business as usual on game day and there was no mention of the final job in the dressing room.
“We turned on the switch like it was another big game on any other night,” Sutherland explained. “Really, you couldn’t believe it until the final shooter and you realize ‘Wow, that’s his career, it’s over.’
“You had to focus on that game because there was just too much on the line for both teams; that’s how we do our job.”
But once the job was done the attention was turned to Fraser. The scene on the ice after the final shooter was a testament to just how special, influential and respected the man was in the league.
“When it was over we hugged him at center ice and players from both teams were coming over to shake his hand and hug the guy too, it was quite a scene,” Sutherland said. “It was amazing, the respect. And that’s all we ever want to achieve in this business. It was great to see him have that.”
As the hoopla subsided and the referees and players left the ice, the officials returned to the dressing room and took a little time to relax and reflect on one heck of a career for Fraser and one special experience for Sutherland.
“It was a little sad, but it was very joyous too; what a great exclamation mark at the end of his career,” Sutherland said. “We sat there afterwards and had a beer in the room, just us, no reporters, no anybody and we were just like ‘Great job.’
“It was a great honor to be with the guy you looked up to since you were a teenager and then finally meeting him, working side-by-side and then to be there to end his career, out of all the guys he could have chosen on our staff.”
Without a doubt, Fraser will be missed by many around NHL circles.
A Ref’s Life is a look at the world of officiating from the NHL level down through to the minor league level. We’ll talk to different referees from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of the profession. A Ref’s Life will appear bi-weekly through the NHL season.
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