Wally wide

The life and career of trailblazing NHL referee Wally Harris, the League’s first Director of Officials, was celebrated on Saturday by family, friends and those who knew him only by the black and white vertical stripes he wore for 17 seasons.

Harris died in a hospital in Montreal-suburban Pointe-Claire on April 17 following a short illness. He was 88.

Highly respected as a referee and for more than 1,500 games an influential supervisor of game crews, Harris officiated 953 regular-season NHL games and another 85 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs between 1966-83, working six Stanley Cup Finals between 1973-83.

He officiated two NHL All-Star Games -- the League’s 28th in 1975 at his hometown Montreal Forum and the 34th in 1982 at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland -- and called the historic 1975 New Year’s Eve 3-3 tie at the Forum between the Montreal Canadiens and the touring Central Red Army club team of the Soviet Union.

Harris also was the first NHL referee to work Spengler Cup tournament games in Switzerland.

Wally split

A caricature of Wally Harris greeted visitors to his memorial; two of the referee’s game-used whistles sat atop the urn containing his cremated remains.

Forever eager to share his wisdom and experience in former or casual mentoring sessions with young officials, he spoke regularly about the game he loved to any group that invited him, serving up his buffet of hockey stories and history.

The native of Montreal-suburban Lachine is celebrated by his birthplace with his photo in the city’s arena, recognizing his place in the Lachine Sports Hall of Fame.

Over several hours on Saturday afternoon, many gathered at a funeral home on the outskirts of Montreal to share stories about a man who was larger than life on and off the rink.

A handful of speakers stepped to a microphone to share stories and memories, capturing the essence of a veteran referee, community presence and a man with a mischievous sense of humor.

Stephen Walkom, NHL Senior-Vice President and Director of Officiating, arrived early in the morning from Pittsburgh, where he was up past 2 a.m. Friday night monitoring double-overtime of Game 6 of the Western Conference Second Round between the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

Former NHL referees Denis Morel and Richard Trottier, and linespersons Pierre Champoux and Jean Morin also were in attendance, as was Peter Dalla Riva, a star of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.

Wally split collage jersey

A framed collage of Wally Harris images and a photo autographed for him by late Canadiens star Guy Lafleur; and a jersey presented to Harris for the 1992 NHL All-Star Game in Philadelphia.

Richard, Jim and Ted Zizian, Harris’ nephews, organized a stirring send-off for “Uncle Wally,” Rick and Jim offering deeply personal eulogies.

“I was sitting by Wally’s bed in the hospital, and he said, ‘During your time on this Earth, you’ll accumulate acquaintances and friends,’” Richard Zizian told the gathering. “Wally had a number of both. He said, ‘However, those that we call our friends are our friends for life. You cherish those people and you hold them close to your heart and you’ll have them with you, no matter what.”

Jim Zizian followed, saying, “Wally sends a big welcome to all of you and thanks you so very much for being here to celebrate a life that he just loved living every day. … I was going to open by saying the family welcomes you, but I realize that you’re all probably an extended family in some way or another.”

Privately, Walkom spoke of Harris as an inspirational mentor to many officials, some of whom are still in the NHL today.

“With a personality that would light up the room, Wally Harris was respected and revered by all officials he managed,” Walkom said upon Harris’ passing.

Wally first game

A framed scoresheet from Wally Harris’ first NHL game, played Dec. 11, 1966 at the Montreal Forum between the Canadiens and visiting New York Rangers.

“There was an assuredness and confidence that he instilled in his people and an absolute love for the game of hockey,” Walkom continued. “Wally understood the importance of officials in hockey and worked non-stop to pass along his great wisdom to the next generations. When he needed to be serious and get his point across, he did this exceptionally well, with both team executives and the rank and file on the ice.

“Wally will be best remembered for his hearty laugh and infectious personality. It put all at ease while ensuring everyone he encountered felt good about being alive and in the game of hockey.”

Those assembled to honor Harris’ memory did so on the 53rd anniversary of the Canadiens’ 1971 Stanley Cup championship, the 10th and final as a player for the team’s illustrious Jean Beliveau. The Canadiens’ late, legendary captain often spoke highly of Harris’ qualities as a referee and a man.

Harris spent countless hours off the ice involved in charitable work and engaged with youngsters wherever he saw them playing recreational sports.

The referee’s cremated remains were front and center in an urn, with two game-used whistles atop it. “Wally Harris 1935-2024. He blew his whistle for the last time,” reads the urn’s plaque.

A looped video, soundtracked by Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and Adele’s “Hello” featured photos and video of Harris’ career on the ice and full life off of it.

If Harris had his way, “Three Blind Mice” would have been heard, too. Often played derisively by arena organists in the direction of three-man officiating crews, Harris loved the tune so much so that he had three blindfolded mice printed on the corner of his business card when he left the game.

Wally action

Referee Wally Harris calls the play dead, the puck in Toronto goalie Jacques Plante’s glove, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 17, 1970. New York Rangers’ Dave Balon (center) and Bill Fairbairn look for a rebound behind Toronto defenseman Brian Glennie.

Game footage included his refereeing the landmark 1975 New Year’s Eve game and a chaotic Jan. 24, 1974, game at Boston Garden, Harris ejecting Bruins superstar Bobby Orr with 50 seconds remaining in Boston’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago Black Hawks.

Orr and teammate Phil Esposito were seen berating Harris, then an enraged Orr throwing his stick as he left the ice, Garden fans littering the ice with a mountain of debris.

It took more than an hour to play the game’s final 50 seconds, Harris and his officiating colleagues John D’Amico and Leon Stickle needing a security escort to get back to their hotel.

Harris picked up his ringing phone as he entered his room; it was Orr, calling to make certain the referee was safe.

On Saturday, a large framed photo of Orr’s historic, airborne 1970 Stanley Cup-clinching goal was displayed at the memorial, signed by the Bruins defenseman:

“To My Friend Wally, Given With Great Respect to A True Professional & Gentleman. Bobby Orr #4.”

Among floral arrangements sent by the NHL, NHL Alumni Association and NHL Officials’ Association were collages of Harris’ refereeing career and his years as a champion paddler in Lachine, an action photo signed by the late Guy Lafleur, Harris’ first-game scoresheet (Dec. 11, 1966 at the Forum, a 4-2 win for the New York Rangers against the Canadiens) and a framed painting presented to him upon his 1983 retirement, the names of 40 fellow officials engraved on the plaque.

“Wally just wanted everybody to be considered family,” Jim Zizian said in his eulogy. “I’m sure that if everybody in Wally’s very extended family and the very many people that he’s befriended on his path in life got to share just one story, it would take a lifetime.”

As the stories flowed, so did the laughter during the celebration of a life well and fully lived.