The first question that comes to mind when seeing Kerry Fraser in person is why he's not still on the ice.
At 67, Fraser looks like he could exchange his suit and tie for a striped shirt and whistle, step back onto an NHL rink and not miss a beat. But after an officiating career that saw him work 1,904 regular-season games and 261 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fraser hung up his whistle after the 2009-10 season. His final game was a memorable one: He and Kelly Sutherland officiated a 2-1 shootout victory by the Philadelphia Flyers against the New York Rangers on April 12, 2010, that put the Flyers into the playoffs and eliminated the Rangers.
Two years ago, Fraser was diagnosed with a rare chronic blood disorder called essential thrombocythemia, an incurable cancer in the leukemia family. During Hockey Fights Cancer month in November 2017, he shared his diagnosis and outlook with NHL.com.
Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing event for anyone. For Fraser, it's brought an appreciation of what he has to do to continue living with a disease that has no cure, as well as what he can do to help others cope with cancer.
Fraser spoke with NHL.com at the League office in New York last week about his own health situation, what the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative means to him and how the League has changed since his retirement.
Here are Five Questions with … Kerry Fraser:
You told the world about your cancer diagnosis two years ago. How is your health these days?
"Right now, it's good. When I was diagnosed two years ago, I put together a team of professionals, from my hematologist, who's now at the University of Pennsylvania cancer clinic. But then you get into that sort of comfort zone, and just recently, for the last month, I felt horrible. Fatigue had set in. I'm on a chemo pill, nine times a week, forever, to manage it. There's presently no cure for what I have. One of the side effects of the chemo pills is fatigue. It just overtook me. I stopped working out; I was kind of busy doing other things. It really grabbed hold of me. I lay down for 24 hours solid and I didn't feel recharged when I got up. My wife and I made the decision to get away. We went to Aruba, our favorite place in the world, and I worked out every day in the health club. I rode the stationary bike, hard, for a good 12-15 miles, sometimes 20. I feel so much better now -- energized. I'm back on track, but it was a good wakeup call. You can't quit on this. There's no beating what I have. I just have to manage it, and I have to manage it smartly."
Video: Behind the Card: Kerry Fraser
Hockey Fights Cancer month was special to you even before you were diagnosed, wasn't it?
"Every year that I was on the ice, when it was this special time, I'd see cancer patients, often children, and it would break my heart. I remember doing a Rangers game and there was a little boy who was in the penalty box, with his parents. He had the toque on, the knitted stocking cap, to keep his head warm. He was about 8 years old. After the national anthem, I went in and shook his hand in the penalty box; he was going to sit there for the first period. Every time I came over to assess a penalty, I made sure I gave him a little wave and a wink. We connected, and I saw that he was a hockey fan for sure. At the end of the first period, that was going to be the end of his stay there, I ducked into the penalty box and I said to his mom and dad, 'Would you mind if I took your little guy across the ice to our dressing room, and you can join him over there?' I said to the little guy, 'You good with that?' and he said, 'Yeah, that would be great.' Rather than have him walk across the ice, I picked him up and skated him across the ice in my arms. We had him in the dressing room. He was from Australia. It was incredible to see the strength this little man had. He was here getting treatment, and he had just been cleared to go out in public, and they had him at a Rangers game in the penalty box. If it wasn't for Hockey Fights Cancer, he wouldn't have been there. That's how powerful the League, the game, and what can be done to make people with this horrible disease keep going, feel good, feel strong - they see these guys out on the ice and see how tough they are, and they want to be like them."
How has being told you have cancer changed you?
"I'm definitely a Type A personality; I know that about myself. It might have helped me as a referee; it didn't help me in some other situations, sometimes with family and friends. Nonetheless, once you receive a diagnosis that can be life-threatening, life-ending, your perspective changes. You start to look at things differently. You don't sweat the small stuff; at least, I don't. It gave me the thought that I've got to look after myself -- I need to do that for my family, which I love and adore. They want me around. I've got to work at whatever I need to do for them. It also gave me the perspective of, how can I help others? I want to be able to give to others and not worry about myself. I feel very blessed with what I've been given, because there are many other people who are in a much more difficult spot than I am. But I also have an opportunity, through some minor celebrity status, to raise funds, to help others feel good, whether it's going on the ice with them, refereeing games for charity, celebrity games to raise funds for cancer research, etc. It really does give you a different perspective on life.
"While I'm riding the exercise bike now, I don't look at the screen. There might be a ride through France or something like that. But I drop my head and I think about the people I'm praying for that have cancer -- my brother being one, and others who have asked for my prayers. The ride goes by very quickly because you take it away from yourself. It's not that you're the most important thing in your universe, it's the others that you're about to pray for, to help, to raise funds for. It's such a gift."
Do you still have some involvement with hockey?
"I do a radio show every Tuesday with Chris "Knuckles" Nilan on TSN 690 out of Montreal. There were two players throughout my career that I would have to say -- "hate" is a very strong word, but if it wasn't, [it was] close to what they felt for me. Knucks and I, after we both retired, he's doing terrific. He's had some very public issues that he had to endure. While we were on a tour with the Boston Bruins alumni -- Ray Bourque and Terry O'Reilly and Rick Middleton and Kenny Linseman, a whole bunch of guys -- Knucks was going through some personal issues in recovery and I helped him out during that week we were together, minimally. We bonded; we are dear friends. It just goes to show you that you can be in adversarial roles as a ref and a player, even to the point of major dislike, but when it's all said and done and the whistle is put away and the hockey stick and the gloves are hung up, we're the same. We're just people who love the game of hockey. We had a great career through it. I have a whole bunch of history and memories that will be in my heart until the day I die. I'm going to love this game, want the best for the game. There's no better game in the world. But there's life after hockey."
How has the game changed since you retired, in terms of players and officials?
"I was under contract to the NHL for four decades, and every 10 years it seemed to me that there was a major change in the game. When we came back from the first lockout in 2005, the game sped up exponentially. There was no hooking, holding; we got rid of the obstruction, that sort of thing. The game now, with the young players who are highly skilled, more skilled players on teams than you used to see back in the '80s and '90s. There were some special guys, but across the board now, every team -- from the No. 1 player to No. 18, they are fast, they are skilled, they are strong, their training methods are better. It's a better game. It's a faster game.
"From the officiating perspective, they have to keep pace with the speed of the game -- not just with foot movement, but visually. I think there's some room for improvement in that regard. Better training techniques need to be instituted from an officiating growth perspective. The League has been moving to recruit former players from the minor professional level or college who aren't going to make it as players in the NHL. They have some good hockey IQ, but what has to be developed is officiating IQ, and it's different. You have to see the game in advance, like the great players I was on the ice with -- like (Wayne) Gretzky, like Mario Lemieux, (Mark) Messier. They knew where the play was at the moment, but they also knew where the play was going to be two or three chess moves down the board. That's what has to be developed. It's a learned skill; they can learn it, but they have to be taught."