LUMBY, British Columbia -- When Tom Kowal left his hometown of Vernon, British Columbia at age 18 to pursue his dream of being an NHL referee, he never thought the League would bring him back to work a game.
Almost 30 years later, Kowal is back in Vernon as part Kraft Hockeyville 2016 in Canada, and excited to referee a preseason game between the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings at Kal Tire Place on Sunday (9 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
"I left here a long time ago to chase the NHL," said Kowal, who figures he last refereed in Vernon in 1987 or 1988. "So to be able to come back and see family, and see some people I knew a long time ago and be part of this community again, this will probably be a highlight for my career to be able to come back and basically to come home again."
Video: BC native NHL refs host Hockeyville officials clinic
Kowal started his homecoming weekend by running a clinic for young referees in nearby Lumby, a 25-minute drive east from Vernon, on Saturday. It was Lumby, a town of 1,731 people, that won the 10th annual Kraft Hockeyville contest and $100,000 for renovations of the aging Pat Duke Memorial Arena, where Kowal, fellow referee Kyle Rehman, and linesmen Kiel Murchison and Lonnie Cameron spent two hours working with local officials Saturday.
They started with an hour on the ice, focusing on skating, positioning, faceoffs, communication and signals, then met in a classroom for another hour of logistics and mentoring.
"We really care about this job and we care about the game, and to be able to come back and be able to spend some time with local officials, not only on the ice but afterwards when we sit in the back and they ask us questions, it means a lot to all four of us," Kowal said.
As for what emotions Kowal can expect preparing to referee an NHL game in his hometown for the first time, Cameron knows firsthand from the Kraft Hockeyville 2015 game in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
"I was driving down the same road I drove to practice when I was five or six years old, and now I was driving down to ref an NHL hockey game in my own barn," Cameron said. "The emotions were awesome, it had come full circle, and Tom is going to get to experience that when he steps on the ice and his family and friends are here and that accomplishment is cemented."
Kowal, who lives south of Calgary in the offseason but still visits Vernon every summer to see his mom and other family and friends, expects similar memories driving to the arena. He plans to take a route past his old house, one he travelled when he first started refereeing at age 13.
"It's going to be a very special experience for sure," Kowal said.