Kowal plays waiting game

Vernon's Tom Kowal, an NHL referee, copes with the lockout.

During the last NHL work stoppage, referee Tom Kowal did some bartending to help pay the bills in Springfield, Mass.

No need for a tip jar this time round as the 45-year-old Vernon product has enough savings to feed his family of five in High River, Alta.

“I have a buddy in Okotoks who runs a rental company so I may work a bit for him, but other than that, I’m skating every day to try and stay in shape and waiting like everybody else,” said Kowal.

A two-time Western Hockey League official of the year, Kowal was in Lethbridge Friday night doing some mentor work for officials doing the Hurricanes-Medicine Hat Tigers game.

“I’m helping out Kevin Muench (director of WHL officiating) by coaching officials. I do one or two games a week, in Calgary, Lethbridge or Medicine Hat. It’s about paying back and it gets me in the rink. You miss what you love and it’s frustrating to see what’s going on. It’s been a rollercoaster.”

Kowal, who has worked 671 regular-season games, hopes to hit the 1,000 mark before retiring. He made his first playoff appearance last year, doing four games and backing up one tilt in San Jose.

“I did an Atom game here the other day to help out. The kids here get yelled at so much. Not many people knew who I was. I’m also coaching Troy (14-year-old son) a little. We were in Spokane for a tournament and I ran into (retired NHLer) Brent Gilchrist and a Kelowna team.”

While scores of NHL players have gone to various leagues around the globe for employment, the referees have taken a different stance.

“We could (go to the American League), we’ve had offers, but we’ve all agreed we’re not going to take any jobs away from guys. It’s not our place.”

Kowal and business partner Lyle Saitz, a former NHL linesman, have commercial properties in the Prairies so he’s not holding any bottle drives in High River. He doesn’t, however, make anything close to the lowest-paid NHL player.

“Every year you lose, it’s a whack of money. What I can tell you is we have a small loan available from the league if we want it.”

Last season was even more special for Kowal since he was assigned to ref the NHL All-Star game in Raleigh, N.C.

Carolina was where he blew the whistle in his first-ever NHL regular-season contest back in January, 2000. One of the officiating crew got Ron Francis of the Hurricanes to autograph a stick to commemorate the night for Kowal.

Let’s hope he’s back on the ice soon, whether it be Carolina, Tampa Bay or L.A.

1994-95 NHL lockout flashback…

Just seems like last Wednesday Roger Knox of Mix 105 radio and I were interviewing Murray Baron of the St. Louis Blues on Shaw Cable during intermission of an NHLPA Silver Lining Game at Civic Arena.

It was actually December, 1994 and the players and owners were in shutdown mode. Gilchrist called some buddies, who called some buddies, and all of a sudden, we had a game between pros and the Junior A Vernon Lakers. Shayne Corson, Paul Kariya and Doug Bodger were some of the elite NHL names.

Baron talked about how the NHL’s parity would show through in a shortened season, if the season could be saved.

“Whoever gets out of the gate quick, you know you could see some different teams in the playoffs going far this year. Anything can happen.”

Gilchrist was standing up for Wayne Gretzky’s controversial Ninety-Nine All-Stars Tour of Europe.

“Wayne’s done a lot for our game and he’s been great for the players,” said Gillie, then of the Dallas Stars. “He’s always stood behind the players. Wayne’s showing the owners that we have other viable options to make a living. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it’s the best 600 players in the world and people want to see us play hockey. They don’t want to see the owners play hockey…”

The lockout ended on Jan. 11, 1995 and a 48-game sprint was on. Baron was somewhat right in his projection since the New Jersey Devils, with 22 wins, swept the 33-win Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.

The Quebec Nordiques, with 30 victories, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, with 29 Ws, also enjoyed stellar short-stack seasons. The Canucks won 18 games and fell in four to Chicago in the Conference semifinals.

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