It's a little more than 40 miles from Guelph, Ontario, to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Making that trip took Bill McCreary more than 26 years and 2,000 NHL games.
McCreary will become the 16th on-ice official to be honored when he and the rest of the Class of 2014 are inducted into the Hall on Monday. It's an honor he said he never thought about when he stepped on the ice to work his first game.
"From the beginning, I always wanted to do well and be one of the best. But I never had the goal of being in the Hockey Hall of Fame," he told NHL.com. "I wanted to do the best that I could … and it was a great way for me to make a living for my family while staying with a wonderful game."
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McCreary said he got involved in officiating for a simple reason: He realized he wasn't going to make it as a player.
"I played junior hockey; I wasn't very good. When I returned home to Guelph, I joined the local referees association in Guelph and got involved there," he said. "At the NHL level, we were fortunate that we had [linesmen] Ron Asselstine, Will Norris, Ray Scapinello and [referee] Andy van Hellemond; we had lots of representation in Guelph at the pro level. They encouraged me to get involved with the little kids, the minor hockey kids, which I did, and I really enjoyed giving back to the game. It just seemed to snowball from there."
McCreary joined the Ontario Hockey Association as a linesman in 1976, soon became a referee and attracted the attention of NHL Referee-in-Chief Scotty Morrison, who signed him to a contract. After what he called "serving an apprenticeship" in the Central Hockey League and American Hockey League, McCreary made his NHL debut on Nov. 3, 1984, working the game between the Washington Capitals and the visiting New Jersey Devils.
"Working your first game is always an event. That was a big night for me and my family," he said. "I worked with [linesmen] Gord Broseker and Ray Scapinello. It was special, but it wasn't celebrated like it is today. It was your first game, you went and did it, you did the best you could.
"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 a third, then a fourth, and finally to a 1,737th on April 2, 2011; ironically, that game was also at Washington, with the Capitals beating the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 in a shootout.
Three years later, McCreary still remembers that night clearly.
"I think when I went back out to start the third period, it was a very emotional time, because I knew that when I came back to the dressing room at the end of the game, it was the last time I was going to do that," he said. "As each commercial [break] approached, I knew that the end was getting nearer.
"The players and the coaches acknowledging you for your last game, and [Alex] Ovechkin coming over and shook my hand and said, 'You know, we're going to miss you.' That really hit home. When you work 29 years, there's a reason for it, and one reason is that I had some respect in the industry. The comments I received from the players and coaches that evening were nice."
Perhaps the most impressive of McCreary's accomplishments was being selected to work the Stanley Cup Final 15 times (1994-2007; 2009-10). When he worked Game 3 in 2010, he broke Hall of Famer Bill Chadwick's longstanding record of 42 games refereed in the Final. McCreary also worked Game 5 that year; his record of 44 Final games figures to stand for a while.
"I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Chadwick at a charity tournament near Toronto, so I had a picture taken with him," McCreary said. "When I broke his record, it was truly an honor for me. It's special to hold that record.
"That and the 297 playoff games I worked as a referee; those are two numbers that I'm really proud of. That's four extra, complete seasons of hockey at the highest level."
McCreary worked both with and for Stephen Walkom, now the NHL's director of officiating. Walkom said McCreary engendered a feeling of trust with players and coaches.
"I think his ability to consistently perform in the highest-pressure games and to be trusted by the participants to do just that; that went a long way toward his success," Walkom told NHL.com. "He officiated in three decades of the Stanley Cup Finals, which is a real testament to his career."
Longtime NHL official Rob Shick said McCreary's achievements were comparable to the great players who were on the ice when he worked. One in particular.
"Bill was, in my opinion the Wayne Gretzky of the officiating world," Shick, now an officiating manager for the League, told NHL.com. "He has records that will never be broken by any other official and he, like Gretzky was able to 'slow the game down in his mind.' He was able to see it, read it, react to what the game needed at that time and not be affected by the pressure of that game whether it was Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final or a regular-season game."
Walkom also noted McCreary gave every game his best, no matter when it was played or which teams were playing.
"One thing I really admired about Bill is that it didn't matter where the game was being played; it didn't matter who the teams were that were playing," he said. "You knew that Bill was going to commit to working as hard as he could to officiate the game.
"When he stepped out there onto the ice, into his workplace, he committed fully to the profession and the game. To me, that was a big key to his long-term success."
McCreary is a bridge from the run-and-gun hockey of the 1980s to the more structured game of recent years, as well as from the one-referee system that was used for decades to the two-referee model that was adopted permanently in the 2000-01 season.
He conceded going from working by himself to doing games with a partner was an adjustment.
"I refereed over 1,000 games by myself. I did five Stanley Cups by myself," he said. "When you work by yourself, you have ownership of the game; you're in charge of the game along with your two linesmen. You have the final decision. When you have two referees, you're trying to integrate two judgments into one, or as close as possible into one.
"I believe we've come a long way. I believe there's still a learning curve for all of us, and there's always room for improvement. There's never a perfect system, but I think it has enhanced the game."
Officiating can be hazardous work. McCreary said good fortune when it came to injuries was a major reason he was able to stay in the NHL for more than 25 years.
"The biggest thing is staying healthy," he said. "I was very fortunate. I never had any torn knees, I never had any back operations, which many of our officials have had over the years, A few stitches here and there, but I never had an injury that caused me to miss a game or assignment. I feel very fortunate."
McCreary enjoyed serving as a mentor to younger officials in the later stages of his career, and he is continuing that effort today as an officiating manager for the NHL.
"My role today is to observe hockey games, and following the game I meet with the officials and we go over some things that happened in the game," he said. "I try to leave the game by giving each official some positive feedback as well as maybe one or two things where if the same situation were to arise again in a game, maybe we'd trying something a little different to enhance the outcome. Always try to find solutions to new problems as they arise, leave the official with some positive feedback and build some confidence in these young officials.
"We've got a really good group of young officials to work with, and hopefully they'll all be successful as time goes on."
They'll have to work hard to be as successful as McCreary.