Dave Jackson always dreamed of being in the NHL. Like many young Montrealers growing up in the glory days of the Montreal Canadiens, he idolized Guy Lafleur and wanted to play at the legendary Montreal Forum. Jackson fulfilled his dream, but instead of sporting the iconic bleu, blanc, et rouge he’s on the ice wearing black and white stripes
While he grew up playing the game, he soon realized he had a better chance of making the pros calling the games rather than competing. He refereed his first local hockey game at 14, at 17 he was being scouted by minor leagues, and at 21 he got the call from the NHL. "When they took me I was barely shaving, there were guys who were there forever, it was intimidating," he said.
His first game on the big stage was on December 22, 1990 in a match between the Quebec Nordiques and the New Jersey Devils at the Collisee. Who else would be starting at right wing than Jackson’s idol: Guy Lafleur. "As soon as I dropped the puck and I saw that flow of hair whizz by me I knew I had made it," he recalled. Lafleur netted the Nordiques lone goal in the 4-1 losing effort. "This was a guy I grew up worshipping, I was starstruck after I dropped the puck. The rest of the game is a blur."
While Lafleur might have been the most awe-inspiring player for Jackson personally, he’s had the opportunity to work alongside the NHL’s most revered players. He can’t divulge much about any current members of the league, but his favourite former players are Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. "These are two of the greatest to play the game, both captains, and to have them come over and debate you but treat you with respect was incredible, especially at my young age." He refused to speak about the players he didn’t enjoy working with, but said you rarely run into players you don’t like off the ice and that it’s only happened once or twice in his career.
Jackson says he and other officials endure the "usual four-letter words" but he’s never been in a situation where he felt threatened by players, a coaching staff, or fans. "The abuse is not that bad. It looks bad, but there’s a big difference between being upset and being abusive. It’s typical for guys to argue, but it can cross the line when it’s a personal attack. I’m not afraid to use unsportsmanlike penalties or bench minors," he said. It’s not just the players who can get heated in a game. While he says the glass protects him from hearing the specifics of the crowd, referees aren’t deaf. While the Bell Centre is known for it’s vocal crowd, Jackson says it’s Chicago that stood out. "The building that was the loudest was the old Chicago Stadium. Standing out on the ice you honestly couldn’t even hear yourself think there were so many people there," he said. That’s why Jackson lists the confidence to stick to your decisions, good or bad, as one of the most important qualities for a referee. He admits that he’s blown calls before, and much like a player who whiffed on a big goal, Jackson has had many sleepless nights. "You know it, and the players know it, but you have to leave it on the ice," he said. "But it isn’t always easy."
While the players and staff pack up and head to their private charters after the game, referees head to hotels to wait for their commercial flights. Jackson had just arrived in Toronto from Boston and was flying out to Colorado after the game. Since referees only receive their schedule two weeks beforehand, he had no idea what the rest of his month looked like. Visits home are a treat when criss-crossing North America and visiting all 30 arenas in the league. Multiply that by the 73 games that he’s contractually obligated to work each year, not including pre-season and playoffs, and it equals living out of a suitcase.
The referees are even responsible for their equipment, so washing and maintaining their gear is a task that needs to be done on the road. Often times the home rink’s equipment manager will lend a helping hand with the laundry when they can, but Jackson said there was one instance where another referee had to ask the staff to launder his spare pair of underwear during the second period so he could take off directly after the game.
While the life of a referee isn’t necessarily luxurious, Jackson considers his a life well lived. The daily grind of a referee, the travel, the harsh words, don’t compare to the milestones he’s reached in his career. He surpassed his goal of refereeing 1000 games seven years ago and last year he had the opportunity to work at the Sochi Olympic Games. While he might not be the most adored person on the ice, there’s no doubt that he’s fulfilled his NHL-sized dream.