It will soon be training camp time for the 31 NHL teams. That's right -- 31 teams. Because without the 31st team -- the officials -- it would be chaos on ice with no one to enforce the rules of the game.
Like the 30 teams, the officials have a training camp that's now under way to prepare for the 2008-09 season. At first blush, training camps in professional sports may seem exciting, but the reality can be some boring repetition. So, you need a few "personalities," says Denis Morel, a former NHL ref and current Montreal Canadiens scout. Morel said that during his days as a ref between 1974 and 1994, Ray Scapinello was one of his favorite personalities.
Scapinello will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 10 for his body of work, which included 2,500 regular-season games and 426 playoff games, all consecutive, as he never missed a game between 1971 and 2004. He was called the best linesman in the game in 20 of his 33 seasons; he worked 20 Stanley Cup Finals and three All-Star Games. He also worked the 1998 Winter Olympics. But according to Morel, Scapinello was one of those guys who made training camp fun.
"He juggled, he was pretty good," said Morel. "He was pretty agile. He was good on a one-wheeled bike. Sometimes he brought that to training camp and show us what he did during that summer to practice that balance and it was OK."
Referees and linesmen get to see each other only for a few days in September at training camp then hit the road for the preseason, the regular season and the playoffs. Time is short, and getting to know one another is a bit difficult. But there is a bond, according to Morel.
"That was the only time we were together as a group and we enjoyed our time there," said Morel. "Ray was always going to bed early, he had to take care of himself."
At least that was Morel's story about training camp, but sometimes he and Scapinello would "bend" the rules and have some fun.
"Ray was always a good supporter on the ice and always encourage you and support you on every call," said Morel. "He succeeded because of his determination, and he always kept in shape. Ray and I did a few trips together and we worked the Stanley Cup Final together. Ray worked more than me and he was always fun to be with. We were not supposed to go skiing, but we went skiing a few times together, too. We always looked for each other to be together."
Linesmen don't get much notice on ice except in two cases -- when they blow an offsides call or break up a fight. But according to Morel, referees appreciate the help they get from the two linesmen who are part of the officiating team.
"Ray Scapinello was a great one," Morel said. "Ray came to every game preparing himself very well. He was ready for every game and gave 100 percent every game, and that is the reason he succeeded so much. On the ice, he always did his job as best he can and help us as a referee. Ray achieved something that every official in the NHL would like to achieve."
Ray had to be good. He was only 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, and at that size, he had to have a lot of determination and courage to break up the heavyweights who were throwing punches at one another. There is one other thing a linesman has to do -- he also has to help clean the ice when things like an octopus or coins are thrown on the ice. Morel said that Scapinello didn't mind doing those tasks, either, although he laughed after saying that he didn't think Scapinello pocketed the changed.
Morel entered the NHL three years after Scapinello's first game on October 17, 1971 at the Aud in Buffalo where the 25-year-old rookie debuted in a game between the Minnesota North Stars and the Sabres. Oddly enough, Scapinello's last regular-season game was also in Buffalo on April 2, 2004 in a game between Toronto and the Sabres. Scapinello was 57 at the time. Morel was retired for a decade at that point.
Scapinello was a player in juniors in Guelph and also played senior hockey with the Guelph Regals. Scapinello's officiating career began in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, in 1968 when he joined the Guelph Referees Association and attended (NHL referee) Bruce Hood's School of Officiating. He caught the eye of NHL officials in 1970 who saw his work in the Outlaw Junior League and the Ontario Hockey Association. He worked American Hockey League games in 1970-71. In 2005, the officiating bug was still in his system and he joined the Double A Central Hockey League as the league's officiating supervisor and remains in that position. He also hosts the annual Ray Scapinello Road Hockey Tournament every spring in Guelph to raise money for local charities.
"He is a great person," Morel said.