Bill McCreary's career as an NHL referee comes full circle on Saturday night.
It began on Nov. 3, 1984, when McCreary officiated a game between the Washington Capitals and the visiting New Jersey Devils. More than 27 years later, McCreary will call it a career after he works the game between the Caps and the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.
McCreary will start his 1,737th regular-season game by doing his trademark puck flip before dropping the puck to start the Sabres-Caps game. Add in a record 297 Stanley Cup Playoff contests and McCreary has taken the ice for more than 2,000 NHL games.
Not bad for a former junior player from Guelph, Ont., who turned to officiating when he realized he wasn't going to make the big time as a skater.
"I was hired by Scotty Morrison in 1982, and of course we serve an apprenticeship -- I was in the Central League and the American League before I did my first game in 1984," McCreary said. "I had no idea it would lead to 29 years. I was very fortunate to have the success I've had."
The best thing about his NHL debut, he said, was that it was uneventful.
"I worked with Ray Scapinello and Gord Broseker that evening," he said of the 6-4 victory by the Capitals. "We just went out and did our job. I don't really remember anything standing out; it was just a normal game. I probably got in the way a few times and maybe screwed up some calls. But you learn from them. That first game, you always want to get it under your belt so you can get on to that second one."
The second one led to the third one, the fourth one … all the way to the 1,737th one.
"You get to know your 'teammates' better, what they expect from you and what you expect from them," McCreary said of his progress from a young official to one of the best ever to pull on a striped shirt. "You get to know the players better as you go along. You create some sort of respect level with coaches. The more games you are assigned and get to work, things fall into place. If you're fortunate enough to be selected to work the playoffs, it puts you in a position where other fellows don't have that opportunity and people see you more. So providing you do your job respectfully, keep the game fair and safe, I think that's where people look upon you as a consistent, fair referee.
"As you progress and get a little bit more established, and start to work playoff games, you start to set little subtle goals for yourself -- I want to try to get 20 playoff games, 50 playoff games. Retiring with 297, and no other referee having done that many, I consider quite an honor."
Most special for McCreary is the fact that he's worked more Stanley Cup Finals and Final games than anyone else. Last spring's Final was the 15th of his career; and he's worked 44 final-round games, passing the mark held for decades by Hall of Famer Bill Chadwick when he stepped on the ice for Game 1 between the Flyers and Blackhawks.
"One of the great honors was that I broke Mr. Chadwick's record," he said. "I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago. What a wonderful man -- very sharp, even in his later years. I had my picture taken with him, and I'm so glad I did. When I broke his record last year -- he had done 42 Stanley Cup (Final) games, I ended up with 44. When people speak of officials, Mr. Chadwick's name is always brought up. It's quite an honor."
McCreary's work hasn't been limited to the NHL. He's also worked the 1991 and 1994 Canada Cups, as well as the Winter Olympics in 1998 (Nagano, Japan), 2002 (Salt Lake City) and 2010 (Vancouver) -- drawing the assignment for the gold medal game each time. In 2002 and 2010, he saw a lot of familiar faces because Canada and the United States played for the gold.
"When we went to Salt Lake City in 2002, I was selected and I was the first Canadian to ever be selected to work a championship game between Canada and the U.S. It was an honor," he said. "But it was 40 NHL players playing against each other. The only difference was they were representing their countries. I treated it like it was an NHL game, and it was a fabulous game.
"I think the recognition that came out of that game for me, or the honor, was that 11 American players, unsolicited, came across the ice to me after the game and shook my hand after losing the game. They were emotional -- they had just lost the chance to win the gold medal -- and it really made me take a look at what had just happened. I was very thankful and very respectful for what they did."
Because he's hanging up his whistle with a week to go in the regular season, McCreary will find himself with time on his hands when he's usually busy -- he'll be watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in more than two decades.
"It's going to be different," he said. "But I respect the fact that there's a tremendous amount of great officials I've worked with over the years, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are going to be well-handled. We have a lot of great officials to work those games, and I know they're going to do a great job. I'm going to enjoy watching them, and I'll support them. I'll be at home cheering them on.
"It's going to be a different feeling, but I hope a young man gets an opportunity where I would possibly have been in that spot, so it will be an advancement for a younger guy. It's a very young man's game, and I respect that. I would never want to affect the integrity of the hockey game because I wasn't able to do the job."
At age 55, McCreary would like to spend time sharing his knowledge and experience with aspiring officials.
"I'm hoping to stay in the game," he said. "I'd like to work with officials. I believe with my experience over my 29 years, I can pass on some things that would be able to help people and maybe enhance their careers a little bit -- even if it's just little things. I'm not intelligent enough to re-invent the game, but if I can pass on some of what I was taught by some of the great people that worked to teach me, I'll feel good about that.
"We'll see what transpires. I think something is going to unfold."