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Fairways to forechecks: the life of NHL ref Garrett Rank

A successful Canadian amateur golfer, Garrett Rank's dream of reffing in the NHL has become a full time job after a poignant loss and some scary physical adversity.
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At first, Garrett Rank figured they were joking. He entered the 10th-floor boardroom at league headquarters thinking he was about to be promoted to full-time refereeing status, the ultimate dream for any aspiring whistleblower. Instead, for the next 10 or so minutes, he listened as Al Kimmel, an NHL officiating manager, led him on a wrenching ruse. “I was an easy target,” Rank admits.

See, Rank had reached Toronto around 2 a.m. last Tuesday, nearing the end of an action-packed, weeklong stretch that spanned two countries and as many sports. Over the weekend, he had made the cut as an amateur at the Canadian Open in Oakville, Ontario, shooting 69 in the first round and winning over fans as a fellow provincial native. After ultimately finishing tied for 77th at 8-over, Rank had driven six hours that Sunday to Pittsburgh, stopping over at the house of Derek Arnell, a veteran NHL linesman. On Monday, Arnell caddied for Rank as he shot 65-68 on 36 holes at the U.S. Amateur qualifiers in West Virginia. Finally, Rank zipped across the border for his 10:30 a.m. meeting, looking for good news from his bosses.

As Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, labored to keep a straight face, Kimmel began knocking Rank down a few pegs. “We told you when we hired you, you needed to focus on officiating,” Kimmel said, referring to when Rank had joined the NHL’s minor league program two years ago. “It had to be a priority. We really think that, from what we’ve seen on TV, you need to take up golf.”

Rank sat there, stunned. He had always separated his job from his hobby well, even if late-night road trips were required to shuttle between events. Meanwhile, two straight assignments in the AHL’s Calder Cup Final and 31 NHL games last season made him confident that the full-time gig was coming. And now Kimmel was saying that Rank hadn’t treated officiating seriously enough. Now Kimmel was describing how the PR department would handle an exit. Now Kimmel was telling Rank to turn in his company-issued laptop ...

“I had a lot of things going through my head,” Rank says. “They kept carrying on long enough to make me feel really uncomfortable. Long enough for me to be like, maybe they are upset I’ve been playing golf.”

Of course, the joke only worked because of Rank’s legit acumen on the links. Now 28 years old, he has twice won the Canadian Mid-Amateur championship, twice reached match play in the U.S. Amateur, and earlier this week at the Porter Cup near Niagara Falls notched his fourth career hole-in-one. At the Canadian Open, he spent the first day paired with Jared Du Toit, another amateur who wound up finishing ninth overall, and capped off the round by chipping in for eagle on 18.

So it was only when Kimmel ceded the floor to Walkom, who finally began the standard hour-long interview process by offering congratulations and issuing the official promotion, that Rank finally allowed the news to sink in. “He handled it well,” Walkom says. “For him, it was big.”

After all, given everything Rank has endured in his life, there was no chance that a long drive, a sleepless night, and some deadpanned humor would dare spoil this moment 


They walked down the fairway at Glen Abbey Golf Club, chatting about their late father.

Rich Rank wasn’t a particularly great golfer during his time, but by some strange force he was always capable of sticking one long putt per round. Then, per tradition, he’d always tell Garrett, “If you could hit this putt like me, you’d be on tour.” So when Garrett dropped a 50-footer into the 16th hole during the Canadian Open’s first round, memories stormed back for him and his caddy—his older brother, Kyle, a firefighter in Waterloo and former minor league skater.

On Jan. 3, 2014, Garrett was refereeing the IIHFUnder-17s in Sydney, out on the eastern edge of Nova Scotia, when he awoke to seven missed calls. Upon connecting with Kyle, Garrett learned that Rich had suffered a heart attack at work while filling his snowplow with sand and salt to clean local roads. “Keep me informed, stay in touch,” Garrett said. Less than four hours later, Kyle called back. Rich was gone. He was 57.

No new flights were available before Garrett was originally scheduled to return home, so instead he stayed in Sydney and worked the championship round with a heavy heart. It might’ve been for the best, anyway. “He’d been bugging me all week about getting to the gold medal game,” Garrett says of his dad. “I had it, so I was going to go out there and get it.”

For whatever reason, Rich had always nudged Garrett toward refereeing over golf. “He probably saw something that I didn’t see,” Garrett says. A small-town official himself in Elmira, Ontario, and popular among locals for his outgoing personality and chattiness on the ice, Richard helped Garrett score part-time jobs timekeeping and calling youth hockey games. For that reason, Garrett frames his recent six-day stretch in the context of Rich: “That would’ve been a dream week for him, probably bigger dreams than mine. He would’ve been the happiest I would’ve ever seen him on Tuesday when I got promoted full-time, and he would’ve had a great weekend prior to that, watching me and my brother play. I’m sure he’s watching us, I’m sure he’s crushed a couple beers in celebration.”

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Like many young Canadian boys, Garrett first dreamt of reaching the NHL, but reality dawned around when he finished playing for local junior B teams in Waterloo and Elmira. So his attention turned to the stripes. He started in the Ontario Hockey Association, which oversees three lower tiers of juniors, and eventually graduated to the OHL. After three years there, he got hired straight into the NHL’s minor league program, discovered by Kimmel during a scouting mission, and began rocketing up the ladder. The promotion made him one of three new full-time referees joining the ranks for 2016-17. “He’s one of those guys that recognizes that he feels comfortable within the game, and his role within the game,” Walkom says. “He believed, deep down, that he could make the team if he put his time in. He was right.”

Need more convincing of Rank’s resolve? Consider what happened during college, while he attended the University of Waterloo on a golf scholarship. During a hockey game he was working, Rank says, he felt enough discomfort to visit a doctor. That Friday, an ultrasound discovered a testicular tumor. That Monday, he was in the hospital undergoing surgery to remove the mass. He lost weight and strength while recovering–solidifying the end of his playing career–but now calls the scare “a blessing in disguise.”

“It gave me a better outlook, a different attitude,” he says. “Maybe a bad call isn’t that bad anymore. Maybe a bad shot isn’t that bad anymore … It relaxed me more. Once I recovered from it and got back into playing golf, I just thought about hey, six months ago, you weren’t playing golf at all. Now you’re fortunate enough to be back on the ice skating, refereeing hockey games, playing golf. Right away, it really sunk in that hey, maybe don’t take this for granted, work really hard to try to make your dreams come true.”

The intersection of fairways and forechecks is nothing new. Before he was picked No. 1 overall in 1970, current Panthers executive Dale Tallon qualified for the Canadian Open and later worked as a PGA pro. Three-time Stanley Cup winner Bill Ezinicki teed off in nine U.S. Opens. Forward Dan Quinn, a veteran of 805 NHL games who retired in the mid-1990s, caddied for John Daly and Ernie Els, among others. For Rank, the two sports work in harmony.

“The reffing, you’re an accessory to the game, just out there monitoring and trying to let the guys have fun, keeping it safe and fair,” he says. “I think the golf provides me with my competitive balance, where I can go out and play and try to have some success, try to do well and win. I think they complement each other well.” Rarely, though, do they overlap. Rank squeezed in a few rounds on the road last season, particularly during two off days in Florida, but generally found hauling his clubs around too cumbersome. “Not enough to stay sharp,” he says. “But it’s not like I put my clubs in the closet and never look at them.” Besides, he has a real job to do.

Now that he’s full-time, Rank expects even more overlap. Maybe some NHLers will chirp him on the ice and some colleagues will rib him in the locker room, though it’s likely that few could even hang with him on the links.

It’s already started, too. One week before Kimmel and Walkom pulled their fast one, Rank played a practice round at Glen Abbey with three PGA Tour members—Erik Compton, Jason Gore, and Steve Wheatcroft. For the first couple holes, Rank was wound tight around the pros, asking questions about their lives. “Then for the last 11, 12 holes they just wanted to hear stories from the reffing world, the hockey world,” Rank says. “They were asking, ‘What do the players say to each other, what do the players say to you, what’s it like being on the ice?’”

After all he's been through, it's pretty sweet, and that's no joke.