Kerry Fraser, one of the of the NHL’s best storytellers, recalls a specific run-in (one of many, apparently) with The Great One when the two butted heads for on entire game.
In a recent interview for an article on even-up calls, former NHL referee Kerry Fraser reminisced about his legion of run-ins with players and coaches – from Jarome Iginla to Scotty Bowman to even Wayne Gretzky.
During our conversation, Fraser recalled a colorful encounter with The Great One, when Gretzky decided to try to dive his way to a much-needed Oilers power play.
“Wayne was very competitive. And my perception was that when a player gets touched and they start to fall down and their head is turning, looking at the referee, that’s a pretty good indicator that he was going down with a purpose.
“He didn’t do it on the road so much as he did it in his home building. Wayne walked on water in Northlands Coliseum. Anything that happened to him, the crowd would immediately get on the referee if he didn’t make a penalty call. In Wayne’s competitive nature and his youthfulness, he would do whatever he could do gain a power play.
The confrontation between Fraser and Gretzky came late in a game in the 1980s between the Oilers and Flyers in Edmonton.
“The first shift, the first time he got touched, he went for a leap and was turning his head looking to see if I had my arm raised before he hit the ice. We had no diving penalty back then, so my personality, my character flaw, took over and I thought, ‘I’ll show you.’ I didn’t call anything.”
True to those thoughts, Fraser kept his whistle in his pocket when it came to infractions perpetrated on Gretzky throughout the game. Remember, this is in the era of the one referee system, when the zebras had their names on their backs just like the players, and the fans knew who they were.
“There were, I’m sure, legitimate times where I could’ve called a penalty and I went the other way. And the more that happened, the more the crowd booed and yelled at me, and the more it caused me to dig my heels in even deeper.”
Near the end of the game, the stubbornness continued between Fraser and Gretzky, leading to several colorful metaphors. Even Bobby Clarke chimed in with one of his own.
“There was one minute left in the game and the Flyers were winning by one goal. The Oilers had a phenomenal power play – ‘Gretz’ was a second-year player, and they had (Mark) Messier, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Jari Kurri, (Glenn) Anderson, you name it.
“When the Philadelphia goalie caught the puck, I blew the whistle. Gretzky was behind the goal-line in his office, nobody around him. As I blew the whistle he jumped in the air, threw his hands out forward, his feet out backward and did a belly flop on the ice, nobody around him.
“Clarke skated over to him – no teeth – and said, ‘Get up, Gretzky, you f—in’ baby!’
“I skated over to him and said, ‘Wayne, what are you doing? There was nobody within 15 feet of you.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, you wouldn’t have called it anyway. You haven’t called a f—in’ thing all night!’
“I said, ‘You’re right. I’m going to start right now. You’ve got two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“He said, ‘Thanks, it’s about effing time you called something!’ And he stormed off the ice.”
Years later, Fraser and Gretzky can laugh about their confrontation, now that they’re both retired from the game.
“Wayne and I have even talked about this. He wrote the foreword to my book (The Final Call: Hockey Stories from a Legend in Stripes). One of the things he said is that, ‘Referees have a tough job, and there were times when I didn’t agree with Kerry. He wasn’t always right, but I know I wasn’t either.'”
The moral of the story? The referee is always right, even when he’s wrong.