Jackson rink

There were countless steps that Dave Jackson took on his road to milestones during his 40-year refereeing career.

On July 4, he made a steep climb of nine more, on two hips surgically replaced four months ago, to realize a lifelong dream.

“Since I first walked into this building in 1969 as a 5-year-old, I’d always wanted to get up into the press box,” Jackson said wistfully upon arrival in the lobby of the Bob Birnie Arena, the beautiful barn in his suburban-Montreal hometown of Pointe-Claire.

On this day, his dream would be realized in a hockey jewel that was built as a 1967 Canadian Centennial project.

Jackson’s six-day visit home from Colorado, where he lives 25 miles south of Denver, would be bittersweet.

Jackson pressbox

Dave Jackson on July 4, 2024, in the four-seat press box of Bob Birnie Arena in Montreal-suburban Pointe-Claire, where his refereeing career began at age 14 in 1978-79. 

With his wife, Jill, daughter Madeline and son Ryan, today an NHL and AHL linesman, he would say a final goodbye to his late father, Graham, who died in March at age 91. Jackson’s other son, Shayne, today a budding hockey agent in Kurt Overhardt’s KO Sports stable, was unable to attend, based out west.

The Saturday service was held at a 69-year-old church where Jackson’s late parents were parishioners for decades, many coming to pay their respects.

Jackson, 59, would eulogize a devoted family man and a community pillar during an hour-long memorial service, having spent much of the previous four days cleaning up what had been the family home since 1967.

If preparing the house for sale was an emotionally difficult process, he would be brightened last week by seeing longtime friends and visiting places that were a part of his boyhood, adolescence and young adult life.

Our histories are strongly intertwined. At age 14 in 1978-79, Jackson refereed his first game on Bob Birnie Arena ice, in the local minor hockey system. My journalism career began in the building’s press box a year earlier, covering the city’s Junior B team.


Graham Jackson is remembered in a July 6, 2024 memorial service, and a late 1970s Metro Junior Hockey League puck that Dave Jackson found in his late father’s home, giving it to the author as a gift to celebrate the careers of a referee and a journalist that began in Pointe-Claire’s Bob Birnie Arena one year apart.

During a talk last week, almost equidistant between our boyhood homes, we reminisced about people and places and events -- the convenience store at the corner, the drug store down the road, the iconic duckpin bowling alley across the street, the nearby sports shop that sharpened our skates, a long-gone ice-cream parlour around the corner that Jackson operated briefly -- “two summers of (misery),” he recalled with a laugh.

We recalled our days caddying at a local golf course for tight-fisted duffers whose hooks and slices found more bushes and irrigation ponds than fairways.

A few rink lengths from us was popular Valois Park and its baseball diamond, soccer field, community pool and tennis courts, on which the hockey rink -- now artificially refrigerated -- is built in the winter. It was here where Kevin Meagher, the late brother of NHL senior executive vice president Gary Meagher, was Dave Jackson’s summer park-program leader.

Jackson refereed 1,546 regular-season NHL games, from his Dec. 22, 1990 debut at the Quebec Colisee through his last, in Los Angeles on March 29, 2018, at Staples Center (now Crypto.com Arena). Between 1999-2016, he called 83 Stanley Cup Playoff games, also refereeing the 2002 and 2018 NHL All-Star Games and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Jackson 2006 2018

Dave Jackson confers with New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur during a game at Continental Airlines Arena on Sept. 28, 2016, and in the officials’ dressing room at Amalie Arena on Jan. 28, 2018, following the 2018 NHL All-Star Game.

There were countless more on his way to the NHL, his journey beginning at the Birnie arena, moving him from minor hockey to Quebec major junior and the minor pros.

Over coffee, Jackson enjoyed an iPad spreadsheet of his NHL career that had been prepared by the League’s statistics department -- every one of his games charted with date, location, opponents and final score.

“I have this in a binder at home, handwritten,” he said. grinning. “It was a habit. When I started refereeing at 14, I’d record every game, ticking them off when I was paid. I kept doing it when I got to the NHL, still ticking off games even though I was on salary.”

He was 21 when he became an NHL trainee, even before he had refereed a junior game. Jackson was a student at former NHL referee Ron Fournier’s officiating school when Bryan Lewis, new in his role as the League’s director of referee development, spotted a diamond in the rough.

“He handled tough situations calmly and coolly and had everything under control,” Lewis told the Montreal Gazette on the eve of Jackson’s NHL debut. “He demonstrated maturity from the first day that I talked to him. I went back to my boss (John McCauley) and told him, ‘This guy can’t miss. I’ll put my mortgage on it.’”

Jackson PC 2015

Dave Jackson on July 4, 2024, outside the officials’ room at Bob Birnie Arena in Montreal-suburban Pointe-Claire, where he dressed for games as his refereeing career began at age 14 in 1978-79, and signalling a good goal following a review during a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks on March 28, 2015, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

One of Jackson’s many colleagues along the way, and a fellow referee for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa, was Wes McCauley, John’s son.

Since 2021, Jackson has worked as ESPN’s rules analyst, chipping in during broadcasts to explain calls on the ice, dissecting them with the rule book and his own experience. The network has just renewed his contract for another three years, through 2026-27.

He works primarily at home in a studio built for the purpose, attending games in the Stanley Cup Final and working the first round of the playoffs from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut; his workplace there is an exact replica of what the network built for him at home.

“My value isn’t just when they bring me on air maybe once a game. I have the producer’s ear the entire time,” Jackson said. “When a penalty is called and he’s trying to search for what happened, I tell him, ‘Tripping in the corner,’ and right away he can find the replay. I’m of value to them behind the scenes.”

The network used Jackson sparingly his first season, trust and chemistry building with the broadcast and production teams. Without eye contact and visual cues, it wasn’t easy to simply jump right in with analysis.

Jackson ESPN

ESPN NHL rules analyst Dave Jackson at work in the network’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut.

“Before the job even came about, I’d sit on the couch at home, see a call, then explain the rules to my wife,” he said. “She said, ‘You should be a rules analyst.’ I realized then that it took me two minutes to explain a call to her. 

“When I got the job, I realized I only have 20 seconds on the air. It was a real challenge to be more concise. I had an end point, but I hadn’t got to it when the producer would be in my ear telling me to wrap it up. I’m thinking, ‘Wait, I’m just laying out my case.’ Now I’m usually pretty good, but there are times when I wish I could have done it over again.”

It was a two-mile drive from coffee to the Birnie arena, its main rink today joined by a companion annex. Jackson figured he hadn’t skated under this roof in about a decade; earlier in the week, he had visited old friends near the end of their game in the annex, then joined them for a beer at a local watering hole.

He hadn’t walked through the main arena, where his refereeing career had begun about 45 years ago, thus he hadn’t seen his large photo on a concourse wall, directly beneath the press box, celebrating his 2010 enshrinement in Hockey West Island’s Hall of Fame.

Jackson Tampa split

Dave Jackson at Amalie Arena on Jan. 28, 2018, following the 2018 NHL All-Star Game. With officiating crew Mark Shewchyk (left), fellow referee Wes McCauley and Brian Mach, and with his son Ryan, daughter Madeline, wife Jill and son Shayne.

Jackson recalled having watched plenty of hockey here in his youth, having seen future NHLers Ian Turnbull and Greg Holst in Junior B. 

Turnbull played 628 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins between 1973-82; Holst played only 11 games for the New York Rangers between 1975-77, but he and Jackson would become good friends off the ice, playing together in a Pointe-Claire men’s softball league for 25 years when Holst returned home from his hockey work in Austria.

“Greg became the Wayne Gretzky of Austria,” Jackson recalled, the 1975-76 American Hockey League rookie of the year enjoying great success overseas as a player from 1978-93, then as a coach for another 15 years.

The Birnie press box visit lasted just a few minutes, Jackson’s first-ever climb and my first since 1979. But it was wonderfully sweet, a padlock opened at the base of the nine almost vertical steps, the door at their summit then unlocked. 

It is a coincidence, or not, that there are nine steps, the sweater number of late Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice Richard. “The Rocket” paid a few visits here for alumni games and the Pointe-Claire Oldtimers tournament, he and fellow Canadiens greats at different times serving as honorary president.

Jackson Birnie split

Dave Jackson was the first inducted into the Hockey West Island Hall of Fame, the organization of minor hockey teams in various suburbs west of Montreal. His 2010 induction photo is displayed in Pointe-Claire’s Bob Birnie Arena, where he began his refereeing career as a 14-year-old in 1978-79.

With participation of former NHL players Fleming Mackell, Don Awrey, John Ferguson, Norm Ullman, Bunny Larocque, Donald Audette, Robin Burns, Leo Labine and others, the tournament has since 1969 raised more than $2.5 million for local charities.

The press box is rarely if ever used now, smoky plexiglass panels bolted in place, making the rink look like it’s being viewed through a steamy shower door. But Jackson was delighted to sit in one of four chairs, settling behind a microphone for a photo, shimmying back down to take a look at his Hall of Fame photo.

This arena has been much more than a hockey rink. On Aug. 11, 1967, Paul Revere and the Raiders, one of the world’s most popular rock-and-roll bands fronted by teen heart-throb Mark Lindsay, headlined a concert promoted by a local top-40 radio station.

The show included Billy Joe Royal, who in 1965 had recorded the chart-topping “Down in the Boondocks.” The next day, the Raiders were headed for a look around Expo 67, Canada’s centennial-year exposition.

Curling took center ice the following March: the world curling championship, for the Air Canada Silver Broom, was held over five days among eight nations, the ceremonial first rock thrown by Canada’s Governor-General Roland Michener, an avid curler.

Jackson arena

Pointe-Claire’s Bob Birnie Arena, photographed on April 25, 2022. Opened on Oct. 18, 1965, built as a 1967 Canadian Centennial project, the building’s first manager was the late Paul Bibeault, who played NHL goal in the 1940s for Montreal, Toronto, Boston and Chicago.

The Russians invaded, so to speak, in September 1974 for a practice during their series against a World Hockey Association all-star team. A crowd of about 1,500 -- including former Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman, taking notes -- watched Soviet coach Boris Kulagin run his team through a spirited 90-minute workout featuring legends Vladislav Tretiak and Boris Mikhailov. 

More recently, the Bob Birnie served as a Quebec vaccination center during the pandemic, thousands coming for their COVID-19 shots.

The building was quiet as Jackson and I took a midday summer walk, a half-dozen figure skaters on the ice for practice. He stopped at the ice-level referees room, remembering it as, well, not one of the finest in which he dressed. Pushing the door open, he was pleasantly surprised to see the room had been fractionally expanded since his day.

Jackson had booked a Sunday flight home, eager to soon put on his skates for the first time since February hip-replacement surgery. He’ll join friends, some of them former NHLers, for their twice-weekly games in Denver that have been going for 25 years.

“The only disappointing thing is that I thought my lower-back pain was hip-related. I realize now it’s back-related,” he said with a tight smile.

Jackson hip split

Dave Jackson with his arm raised during a 2018 game, and an imaging view of his two new hips, the joints replaced in February 2024.

Six years into retirement as an on-ice official, Jackson says he misses some things, others not so much, happy to be an important part of ESPN’s NHL coverage.

“I miss the pregame meal with the guys, talking about hockey, families, our lives,” he said. “I miss the travel to some degree. I never liked the travel, but I liked being on the road. I’d miss my family, of course, but today I miss seeing North America the way I used to get to see it.”

But the stress, Jackson added, is happily left behind.

“Some guys handle it better than others,” he said. “Stephen Walkom (a former colleague who today is an NHL executive vice president and the League’s director of officiating) is a great example. During the Final last month, we’d go for a walk every day. We’ve been friends since 1986.

“I told Stephen how I admired his ability, when he was a referee, to shake things off. He could make the worst call ever and while he wouldn’t laugh about it, he’d say, ‘Well, I can’t change anything, why worry about it? I’ll just be better next game,’ and it was gone from his memory. I’d fret for three days over a bad call, not sleep, just stare at the ceiling. I don’t miss that.”

What still burns brightly in Jackson is the energy that hockey brought him every time he skated onto the rink, whether it was in front of parents at Bob Birnie or sold-out NHL arenas.

“Just getting out on the ice,” he said. “In the NHL, the music playing, lights dimmed, the roar of the crowd, standing at center ice for the anthems. It’s like going to an airshow and having an F-18 fly overhead -- you get emotional, you feel it in your chest. I miss that.”

Top photo: Dave Jackson on July 4, 2024, at Bob Birnie Arena in Montreal-suburban Pointe-Claire, a figure-skating practice on the ice behind him.