Vernon’s Tom Kowal patrols the action during Game 1 of the opening round NHL playoff series between the host New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

Vernon’s Tom Kowal patrols the action during Game 1 of the opening round NHL playoff series between the host New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

Kowal gets playoff call

Vernon's Tom Kowal earns first taste of refereeing in NHL playoffs.

No heavy lifting, but hours of cardio and core work are on Tom Kowal’s summer training program after his most memorable year as an NHL referee.

Kowal spent two hours in the gym Friday morning and then headed to the golf course in High River, Alta. with his 13-year-old son, Troy.

“You have to take care of your body just like the players do,” said Kowal. “Things have really changed over the years. None of the players take time off in the summer and I think that’s why the game keeps getting faster.

“And their skills are so good. That goal by (Anze) Kopitar last night (L.A. vs Phoenix) was such a highly-skilled goal. You look at minor leagues like ECHL and the skill level is so high.”

Kowal, a Vernon minor hockey product who turns 45 in November, signed with the NHL in 1998. Until this spring, he had never earned a playoff assignment.

He worked four games in the first round and was a back-up at one game in San Jose, where he sat in the officials room, half dressed, watching the action on TV.

“I’d been close the last few years and I had a good year so I was pretty sure I’d get the call, but you don’t want to get too excited until they call. The season ended on a Saturday and they let you know Monday.”

Kowal, who twice won the Allen Paradice Memorial Award as the WHL’s Top Official, reffed Game 1 in the Rangers-Senators series in New York, the double-overtime Game 2 between the Bruins-Caps in Boston, Game 4 in the Kings-Canucks series (only game L.A. has lost so far) and the fifth game in the Blues-Sharks series, in St. Louis.

Kowal, who wears No. 32, worked alongside Dan O’Halloran in the Kings-Canucks game. O’Halloran awarded a penalty shot to L.A. captain Dustin Brown in that tilt (Brown missed) after he was hauled down by Kevin Bieksa.

“I was nervous in my first game in New York, but I called a penalty four minutes in on an Ottawa defenceman (Filip Kuba). It was in my partner’s (O’Halloran) area, but he was in a tough area to see it. After that, I felt relaxed.”

He said the whole atmosphere is amped up in the playoffs with everybody from the fans to the players and his supervisors, on high-intensity alert. His crew encountered no controversy in a round which is always critically rated by the media.

Kowal officiated 74 regular-season games, very few of which were home games in Calgary (45 minutes from High River).

“The travel’s hard, but this year was easy because the weather was so good all over North America. Unless I’m going to Vancouver, I fly in the next day, and I can be packed and checked in, in an hour (from his home).”

A first baseman in his baseball and slo-pitch past, Kowal underwent surgery on his right knee three years ago and his health is good.

“I’d like to work between five and eight more years. Fifty-two is probably the target for everybody, but you gotta stay healthy.”

Kowal plans to help out his business partner Lyle Saitz, a former NHL official, at the Austrian pro league’s training camp in August. The friends own some commercial properties in Alberta.

He will return to the Okanagan in July since his 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer-Sue, has a dance competition in Kelowna. Tom and his wife, Alaine, who he met in Kennewick, Wash. when he was based there in the WHL, will also visit Alaine’s relatives in Tri-Cities. The Kowals’ youngest daughter is Reagan, seven.

Alaine is also involved in the hockey game, volunteering on the High River minor hockey board.

Tom, who shoots anywhere from “82 to 92” on the golf course these days, coached Troy in Pee Wee AA baseball last summer in Calgary.

Kowal’s late father, (Esso) Ernie, was a coach, manager, vice-president and president of Vernon minor hockey and an owner of the B.C. Junior Hockey League Vernon Essos.

Ernie and his brother-in-law, Vern Dye, ran the Junior A franchise here for more than 20 years, using their own vehicles to transport players on road trips.

Ernie coached the Vernon Juvenile Reps in 1983 and made national headlines with a no-swearing policy. He was named provincial Coach of the Year in 1985 after he and Tom led the Vernon Atom Reps to the Okanagan title.