All referees, place your hand over your right eye. Now imagine working a game that way. A pretty unsettling thought, to say the least.
Now imagine building a career in officiating with that same disability. And not just any career. Bill Chadwick’s performance during 18 NHL seasons earned him the distinction of being the only American-born official in the Hockey Hall-of-Fame.
Known as “The Big Whistle,” Chadwick at one time had refereed more deciding games in the Stanley Cup Finals than any official in history.
His other claim to fame is inventing hand signals for penalty infractions.
Talk about making your mark on the game of hockey.
“I always felt like I needed to be doing something with my hands when I was calling a penalty,” the 93-year-old Chadwick said from his Long Island, N.Y., home.
“It also seemed to me as if the players, coaches, and especially the fans, deserved to know more about the penalty being called.”
Chadwick, who started his NHL career as a linesman in 1937, began using signals after becoming a referee in 1941. Signals were not made official until 1956, the year after he retired.
Chadwick’s career is highlighted by an endless string of improbable and impressive accomplishments that established him as a true icon of the game. Not to be overlooked is another fascinating feature of a life devoted to hockey – his 16 years as an analyst on New York Ranger telecasts.
“I always loved the game,” Chadwick was quoted as saying in the Stan Fischler book, Metro Ice. “In fact, I enjoyed it more as a broadcaster than when I officiated. I even found myself yelling at the referees sometimes.”
Jeers of “You’re blind, ref!” throughout the 1940s only made Chadwick chuckle inside, as he knew the fans were more correct than they realized. A standout player, Chadwick had been playing in Boston for the (New York) Metropolitan League All-Stars in 1935 when he was hit in the right eye as he was taking the ice for warm-ups. The errant shot ended up blinding him.
The next year, Chadwick was playing for the New York Rovers, the Rangers’ top farm team, when he was struck in the left eye by a high stick. “The blood started trickling and I decided I had had enough as a player,” Chadwick said.
Soon after, Chadwick was rushed into service as a replacement for a linesman in a Rovers game at Madison Square Garden.
“This was the ultimate for me,” said Chadwick. “My being an American couldn’t have worked in my favor. There weren’t many American-born players, and even fewer officials.
“All the players knew I had only one good eye, but nobody gave me any trouble,” he said. “I tried to turn it into a psychological advantage. It made me work harder. I skated harder and tried to be in perfect position at all times.”
This commitment created a level of respect among the players. It was a secret to his success.
“I always tried to gain the respect of the older players on each team – the leaders,” he said. “It took four or five years to do. That relationship helped me get away with more out on the ice.”
Despite the intense dedication to his craft, not every relationship was a smooth one. In fact, two fellow Hall-of-Famers caused Chadwick plenty of grief.
“Maurice Richard and Ted Lindsay gave me the toughest time,” Chadwick said. “Richard was the fiercest competitor I’ve ever seen. Even though they gave me a rough time, my guess is that they respected me.”
Whistle Blower | Q&A
If you ever doubted that 15,000 fans could show up for a hockey game in Shreveport, La., then just ask Tom Sterns.
The 31-year-old from Wisconsin, a rising star in the USA Hockey officiating ranks, performed as referee for that Central Hockey League contest. It was just one of many cherished memories from his travels to the highest levels of hockey outside of the NHL.
USA Hockey Magazine asked Sterns recently about his upbringing in hockey and his lofty accomplishments as a referee.
USA Hockey Magazine: What is your background in hockey and officiating?
Tom Sterns: I have been a USA Hockey registered official since 1989. I worked for two years in the USA Hockey Official’s Development Program then four as a referee in the Central Hockey League. While in the CHL I worked two part-time seasons in the American Hockey League. Last season I worked the World Junior and the Men’s World Championships. I currently live in Edina, Minn., and work in the Junior Program again for Scott Brand. I work various IIHF assignments throughout the season, and worked the Men’s World Championship in Switzerland in April.
USAHM: How did you get started refereeing?
TS: I started when I was 11, doing scrimmages for my younger brother’s team. I realized officiating was a great way to get more ice time and learn the rules. I used to be on the ice every night either playing or officiating.
USAHM: What is the most memorable game you ever worked?
TS: It was Laredo at Bossier-Shreveport, my third CHL season, the first time the two teams had met after a memorable Game 7 in the finals the prior season. Bossier had lost on a controversial OT goal, and let’s just say the fans and team were bitter all summer. They filled the arena with 15,000, and Bossier came from behind to win in the final seconds. I have a great black and white picture of me signaling the winning goal, and the only color is the red goal light and the orange from
USAHM: What goals do you have for the rest of your refereeing career?
TS: My goals for the remainder of my career are to work the NCAA Finals and the Olympic Games.
USAHM: What advice would you give to a young up-and-coming official?
TS: Work every game like it’s the most important of your career. Strive for consistency every time out, and when it’s necessary to communicate with the players and coaches, do so with honesty.