Long-time NHL referee Brad Watson — now 10 days into retirement — can’t help but laugh as he thinks back to the best call he ever made.
It happened as a youngster growing up in Regina, likely somewhere around the time he came to grips with the fact that his Canadian dream of playing in the NHL wouldn’t become a reality.
At age 17, Watson decided to put down his stick and grab a whistle.
The rest — as they say — is history.
“I always tell people: ‘If I could do it, anybody could do it,’ ” Watson says with a chuckle. “My playing days really didn’t propel me at all. Believe it or not, when I was 17, I was 5-foot-2, not even 100 pounds. I was always a good skater but I was really small and I was always on ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams (in minor hockey). My future in the NHL wasn’t looking too good. But I loved the game. I had a passion for it.”
Watson began officiating minor hockey in the old Regina Boys Community League before moving up to the junior level in the early ‘80s, first as an SJHL linesman and later as a referee.
Watson started working WHL lines in 1984 and became a major-junior ref in 1988. That was followed by his first AHL contract in 1993, which eventually led to a callup for his first NHL game on March 7, 1996, between the Ottawa Senators and the host Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Pulling on that jersey with the (NHL) crest is every young official’s dream,” he says. “When you put it on the first time, (it’s like): ‘I made it!’ Now you have to maintain it.”
Watson quickly established himself as one of the best in the business and his work would ultimately stand the test of time, compiling 1,393 regular-season games and 214 playoff contests over a 23-year career. He received 19 straight post-season assignments after becoming a full-timer in 1999, including eight Stanley Cup finals.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” says Watson, who also worked major international competitions like the 1989 world juniors, 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 2010 Olympics.
“I was just hoping to work one round of the playoffs when I started in this business. I’ll miss that side of it — the adrenaline and the atmosphere of the buildings come playoff time. (Being retired) will probably hit me a little more when it comes to the start of the first round. I love working playoffs. That’s what I always worked for.”
Watson’s retirement was set in motion four years ago when he told the league he would work three more seasons, with an option for a fourth.
After exercising that option, he knew the time was right to walk away.
“I had a really good career, I’m healthy and I was blessed with great opportunities,” says Watson, who was the league’s oldest active on-ice official this season. “I’m 57 and there have only been two officials who worked in the NHL at that age: Ray Scapinello and Kerry Fraser. Could I have gone another year? I think I could have but it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s a game of speed and as you get older, even though I don’t think my speed has gone down too much, it has still gone down. (The players’) speed has gone up that much more so the gap is even bigger.”
Watson, who lives in Denver, was given the opportunity to choose his final assignment so he selected a “home” contest on March 23 between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks.
The game was attended by friends and family members from the Denver area and beyond, including several childhood friends who are originally from Regina.
“It was a great reunion,” Watson says. “I hadn’t seen some of those guys in 25 years. It was pretty special. The game itself was a good hockey game. I was just in a good place. I knew it was coming to an end. There was nothing negative about it. I just kind of embraced the 23 years I did have in the NHL. It was good to have it end on a nice positive note with friends and family.”
As he reflects on his NHL career, Watson is the first to admit he had some rough nights and endured his share of abuse. He also learned to take the good with the bad, recognizing that the latter came with the territory as a referee.
“You remember some of the highlights and some of the lowlights,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “I know some of those (lows) too — the games where I got in a lot of trouble. But that’s all part of it.”
Watson will also remember all the “great people” he has encountered over the years. That includes some of the game’s greatest players, among them Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier.
“It was at the end of their careers; they didn’t know me,” he says. “It was more of a thrill just to be on the ice with them. Then I worked with (Sidney) Crosby, (Alex) Ovechkin, (Jonathan) Toews, all those guys — that was pretty cool. You have a relationship with them. You can say goodbye to them: ‘It was a privilege working you guys; I loved how you compete.’ It’s something that’s kind of rewarding in the end. As a kid from Regina, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. That’s over the top. I never thought I’d have that opportunity.”
Leading up to and following his last game, Watson received text messages and phone calls from several former officiating colleagues. He also heard from people like long-time NHL coach Joel Quenneville (one of his favourites) and was congratulated in person by numerous coaches and players who shook his hand after games.
“They get to know you,” he says. “(Veteran coaches like) Jon Cooper from Tampa and Mike Babcock from Toronto, I’ve had some tough games with those guys. But (it’s rewarding) when they sit there at the end and say, ‘Hey, listen, congratulations. You’ve been solid, you’ve been great and we’re going to miss you.’
“I wasn’t the most popular guy (some nights) but for them to show the professionalism back (is nice). We’re a part of the game (as officials) and they realize that. Everyone is human. They have a lot of pressure on them and we have a lot on us. I think there is a mutual respect between the players and the officials.”
Watson may be retired but he hopes to maintain some of those relationships by staying involved in the game. He has already informed the NHL that he’d welcome a chance to work as an officiating supervisor after this season.
“Time will tell, but I do have a strong desire to do it,” Watson adds. “I enjoy working with the young guys and passing on some of the experiences I’ve had and (advice) that guys before me passed on to me. I did a lot of mentoring this year with younger officials on the ice and it was fun to see them do certain things and excel.
“Now that I’m off the ice, I would like to continue that.”