City to honour local ref with his own arena
Every respectable hockey fan can quote the scene from Slap Shot in which the Hanson brothers wrap their knuckles in tin foil before a game to prepare for a fight. It’s just part of the game’s vernacular. English majors have Shakespearean soliloquies, the shinny crowd has this.
The fact that people are still laughing at the insanity of the piece 40 years after the still-hilarious movie came out tells you just how good a piece of writing it was. The wild imagination it would take to come up with something so outrageous and so obviously fictional is more than …
“I had guys that put tin foil on their hands,” interjects legendary Hamilton referee Bill Friday. Wait, it’s not fake? Nope. One of the real-life foilers was a guy named Curt Brackenbury, who was a member of the World Hockey Association’s Minnesota Fighting Saints back in the 1970s. A team that included Jack, Jeff and Steve Carlson, who were the inspiration for the Hansons.
“He showed it to me,” Friday says. “I said, ‘If you get in a fight I’m going to throw you out.’ He said, ‘I know but the coach is making me do it.’”
That story alone certainly isn’t the reason city council voted Wednesday night to push along a motion to rename Lawfield Arena after the veteran of more than 1,400 games in the NHL and WHA. But it helps explain part of the reason Friday is so unique. The guy’s seen everything and done everything.
The member of Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame’s inaugural class is the only official to work both the Stanley Cup finals and the Avco Cup finals, he’s the only referee in the WHA Hall of Fame, and his jump to the upstart league after 12 years in the NHL helped lend the new loop serious credibility.
“He was revered,” says Coun. Tom Jackson, who proposed the motion. “The stature he had. He always seemed to call a fair game.”
Growing up in Hamilton, Friday spent much of his sporting youth playing hockey and baseball with Harry Howell. Howell, of course, went on to a hall of fame career with the New York Rangers.
Friday was a decent player himself, but, after getting married quite young, he decided to retire from the game and make some money. One of the ways he did that was officiating as many as six games a night for the Hamilton Police Minor system for a buck a game.
He became good enough to be noticed by one-time NHL referee Hugh McLean — famous for tossing Maurice Richard out of a game at the Montreal Forum and then ending up in a skirmish with the Habs’ star in the lobby of a hotel the next night in New York — who took the young official under his wing. Soon, Friday and McLean were doing games together.
When McLean was assigned to work hockey at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, Friday inherited his higher-level gigs back home. Jr. A games led to playoff games which led to Memorial Cup games which led to an invitation to try out for the NHL.
That fall, he did his first bigleague game. Montreal against Detroit at the Forum.
“I don’t even remember who won,” he says. “I was scared to death.”
After a dozen years working for not a lot of money on one-year deals, he jumped to the startup WHA. His arrival helped legitimize that new league in the eyes of fans. Despite some of the almost unbelievable characters he found himself whistling for penalties.
The fact is, there are few officials in any sport with a resume like his. So having his name on an arena in his hometown makes plenty of sense, even though naming a rink after someone in stripes is unorthodox. The fact that council is trying to get it done by early April when Rogers Hometown Hockey hosts its national broadcast from Hamilton is even more unusual.
One could fairly ask how this motion could be moving forward so quickly when plans to rename something after local football legend Russ Jackson continue to drag along — apparently there will be some news in the next few weeks, though seeing is believing at this point — but nobody’s complaining. It’s terrific somebody has taken up the fight for Friday, and that there seems to be unanimous support on council for the idea. We need more of these honours, not fewer.
As for the former referee, who’d not been told the idea was being presented prior to Wednesday night even though work on the plan has quietly been going on for a few months, hearing about the move was rather stunning.
“Holy smokes,” he said quietly. “That’s quite an honour.”
Sure is. But well earned.
The Lawfield Arena will be renamed in honour of NHL and WHA referee Bill Friday.