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Jackson relished All-Star Game assignment as final-season reward

Referee to retire at end of 2017-18 after 27 years in stripes with NHL

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

TAMPA -- Dave Jackson was in no hurry to pull off the stripes Sunday. Or perhaps he was a little too weary to tug the jersey over his head.

The 53-year-old referee was sitting in a corner of the officials dressing room at Amalie Arena a half-hour after the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game, an unopened beer on the bench beside him, his equipment bag unzipped at his feet. Among those in the cramped room, overflowing with well-wishers, rolls of tape, towels and post-game cookies and pizza, were fellow referee Wes McCauley and linesmen Brian Mach and Mark Shewchyk, heading to the showers and then to a dinner with family and friends.

"That was exhausting," Jackson said with a grin of the three 20-minute 3-on-3 high-speed games he had just worked. "In a normal game you've got sustained pressure in a zone. You're either on the goal line for 30 seconds or out in the neutral zone for 30 seconds. And there are whistles, the goalie's freezing the puck. Today was constant motion. You're in the zone for two or three seconds, you're out, chasing the play, no whistles."

And then, with a laugh: "For an old man, it's hard."

It was a long road to Tampa for the longest-tenured referee in the NHL, who called his first game as a 14-year-old at his hometown arena in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, Quebec, when it seemed that a hockey career wasn't in his future. Now he's in his final few months at the top level of his profession, retiring at season's end.

On Nov. 20 Jackson worked his 1,500th NHL game wearing orange armbands, just the sixth referee in League history to reach that plateau. He has officiated 83 Stanley Cup Playoff games, twice worked Stanley Cup Playoff conference finals and he was assigned games at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Jackson was 21 when he became an NHL trainee, even before he had refereed a junior game. He 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 for a story, on the eve of Jackson's NHL debut for a game between the Quebec Nordiques and visiting New Jersey Devils on Dec. 22, 1990. "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.'"

At the All-Star Game on Sunday, Jackson's referee partner was Wes McCauley, son of the man who heard Lewis' praise some three decades ago. Outside the officials room, and dropping in, was Jackson's boss, Stephen Walkom, the NHL director of officiating. Walkom was 27 and refereeing at the time of Jackson's debut, the latter then the youngest NHL referee at 26.

Jackson climbed the ranks as a linesman and referee, from house leagues to serious minor hockey, into junior, the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League, before arriving in the NHL. He had worked one NHL All-Star Game before Sunday, in Los Angeles in 2002, and been a standby official in Tampa in 1999, working the skills competition.

Twenty-seven years after his first NHL game, and with Jackson skating toward retirement. Walkom knew that assigning him to the All-Star Game was the right thing to do.

Jackson's two sons, Shayne, 25, and Ryan, 23, had seen their father officiate an All-Star Game. But his daughter, 12-year-old Madeline, had not.

"A lot of times it's based on who's up next with seniority," Walkom said of assignments for all-star or outdoor games. "Dave's not the kind of guy who asks for anything. He's a giver, not a taker, and I said to him, 'Jax, this is your last year and [Madeline] has never seen you at an All-Star Game.' In your last year you can't really ask for games, outdoor, all-star, anything like that. I knew what Jax had done and hadn't done. This was his last chance for his daughter to see him in this game.

"Dave is still a great athlete, a great skater, a great mentor for our next generation. This was one of those things that would make anybody happy. You dream about doing an All-Star Game and you probably dream even more about your kids seeing you out on the ice with all those great players. It's all worked out."

Jackson's final few months as an NHL referee won't be a leisurely, nostalgic retirement tour, with the rest of the regular season and likely the Stanley Cup Playoffs to finish out.

"I get a bit melancholy realizing I might not be going back to a rink again," Jackson said. "And there are off-ice officials I've seen for 25 years or more. I hope to see them again sometime but it won't be business as usual next year. It makes me a bit sad."

He waxes poetic about old Chicago Stadium, a building that rabid Blackhawks fans literally shook to its foundation.

"That place was surreal," he said. "It was fantastic. Standing there for the anthem was inexplicable. People go to the United Center now and think it's loud. But back in the day it was like being at an air show and having an F-18 blast over your head. You'd feel the ground shaking. I wasn't prepared for it my first game; it really knocked me out."

Jackson also speaks fondly of the old Montreal Forum, where he grew up watching games, and of all the old Original Six barns.

"I still love working Madison Square Garden in New York," he said. "I feel like I'm Frank Sinatra when I walk out of there."

Jackson estimated he has skated 7,500 miles during his career and called 5,000 penalties. His wife, Jill, figures her husband has spent 10 years in hotels.

A resident of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, Jackson was honored for his 1,500 games by the Colorado Avalanche before their Jan. 15 game, a special moment in a career full of them. Another was the Montreal Canadiens' marking of his 1,000th game, in 2008, with his wife, three children and his parents on Bell Centre ice with him.

"Hopefully, Stephen (Walkom) takes his credit card out for dinner tonight," Jackson joked Sunday. "This All-Star Weekend is not about us (officials) at all, it's about our families. The primary reason I wanted to do this game was to see the smile on my kids' faces. That's what it's all about. We miss so much of what they do, the milestones in their lives. It's wonderful to be able to bring them here, meet the players, get autographs and feel like they're part of the show. They can put themselves in our shoes for one weekend."

After the games ended Sunday, Jackson and his three colleagues returned to the ice for a few minutes of photos: the group of four together, others with families and the off-ice officials. Then it was back to their small dressing room to organize a night out.

As he reminisced, Jackson tossed into his bag a few All-Star Game-logoed pucks, which soon will join the few thousand he has from virtually every game he's refereed, at all levels. He wraps the edge of each with adhesive tape and using a marker identifies its place in his career.

"I've got them all in boxes," he said. "I've always dreamed of displaying them."

Jackson's colleagues surely will miss him on the road next season, as will his boss.

"Jax has been going back to the AHL, where he began, and it's worked out great," Walkom said. "He's been working with our next generation of officials. He's a good teacher and he's got a real wit about him. I love for our guys to have their own personalities. Dave is cynical, sarcastic and he can be very witty. He's always been a great teammate, always prided himself on being a great skater and being in shape. And he thinks he can play the guitar, but we all know he can't."

Walkom's good-natured unsportsmanlike conduct aside, Jackson said it's the camaraderie of his peers that he'll miss the most next season and beyond when hockey will be a game he'll watch on TV and play in Denver-area men's leagues.

"We're the same as a hockey team, we just don't score goals," he said of his fellow referees and linesmen. "You're as good as your weakest link, so when everybody is good and going the same way, the whole team works well.

"Hockey has changed. I've got older and my generation of players I worked with in junior and the American Hockey League, they've all retired. And the bulk of the guys I've worked with have retired or are about to retire. It's just time. I had a great career.

"I'm not going to miss the airports, but I'm going to miss being on the road with the guys, some of whom I see more than my family. It's been that way for my entire career. I've been with the NHL for 32 years and a lot of the guys started around the same time I did. I'm going to miss that."

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