Photo by Chung Chow
Though it was 18 years ago, for Kelly Sutherland it’s as if it was yesterday. His first NHL game.
“I remember Rob Blake of the LA Kings coming up to me on his first shift, congratulating me, and telling me to have a great career. After that, it was all back to business.”
Fast forward, and Sutherland is now one of the league’s senior referees nearing 1,200 games officiated. And Blake is approaching two years as general manager of the Kings.
How time flies.
Growing up in Richmond, Sutherland, 47, realized early that his prospects of making the NHL as a player were slim. At the time, size was still a priority, so Sutherland wisely changed his focus to the art of officiating. Advancing through the ranks, from minor hockey to the WHL, he demonstrated a calm demeanour and ability to communicate that earned him wide-spread respect from coaches and players alike. It wasn’t long before the NHL came calling, and on Dec. 19, 2000 he refereed his first game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California between the Kings and Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets). Three years later, he earned his first playoff assignment working a series between the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins. The quality and consistency of his work has been further recognized through the years with five Stanley Cup finals (the latest being last year’s series between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights), an all-star game, the 2015 Winter Classic, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and the 2014 gold medal game at the Olympic Winter Games.
Sutherland considers it an honour to have worked so many memorable games.
“I will always remember my first NHL game, but there are many more including my first Stanley Cup final between Philadelphia and Chicago in 2010,” he says. “I was working Game 6 and Patrick Kane scored in OT to win the Cup for Chicago. Being on the ice for that was very memorable. When you are working, everything is a blur. You are so in the zone that you don’t realize until it is over. It is when you decompress that it all sinks in. It is why my first final is very memorable. It was hockey at the highest level of pressure, with the highest stakes.”
Sutherland says last year’s Stanley Cup Finals were notable because of the interaction by the fans, while the Winter Classic is so different from working in a regular arena because the cheers from the crowd are delayed.
“The fans are so far away and when they cheer it is like rolling thunder coming in,” he says. His memories of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia reflect the values Pierre de Coubertin most envisioned when he revised the modern Games.
“I will long remember the crew he was fortunate enough to work with,” he says. “It didn’t matter what country we were from, we were chosen to work because we were trusted to maintain the integrity of the game. We were all born Canadians, but we were still trusted by Canada’s opponent (Sweden) as the best to do the job.”
Sutherland has had many role models in his climb up the officiating ladder. Growing up, it was his dad and his friends who officiated with him.
As he moved up the ranks, Sutherland continued to be a sponge learning as much as he could from co-workers. In the NHL, that list included such legendary referees as Bill McCreary, Paul Devorski, Dan Marouelli and Kerry Fraser.
“I tried to take from each of them something that would me do my job better,” he explains. “They all had so much to offer.”
His advice to aspiring officials is to be patient, and when the opportunity comes to execute it to the best of your ability.
“Never take a night off. Someone is always watching and noticing,” he says.
Ben Kiang is one of those young referees Sutherland has inspired to take up officiating. As he climbs the proverbial ladder, the young Richmondite keeps a close eye on his longtime idol.
“Knowing that someone from my hometown was able to make it really motivated me to pursue officiating at a higher level,” says Kiang. “Every time you walk into the Richmond Ice Centre, you see his jersey and it’s a constant reminder of what is possible. Kelly is a smaller guy like myself, so I have always tried to learn as much as I could from him.”
Kiang appreciates Sutherland’s well-established and highly-regarded communication skills.
“Watching clips of him mic’d up during the playoffs really shows how much respect the players and coaches have for him,” Kiang says.
One of the more important lessons Sutherland took away is being able to block the outside noise and just focusing on doing the job.
“It is the only way to do the job successfully—eliminate as many distractions as possible and just focus on the task at hand,” he says.
Sutherland is also proud of his ability to effectively communicate with players and coaches, having built up a rapport over the years that is so important.
“Rapport and respect are most important. You earn those from having good judgment and doing the job well,” he says.
Preparing for another game day, Sutherland sits down for breakfast with his crew before hitting the gym for a light workout. At lunch, the crew meets again to discuss tonight’s game.
The schedule can be a grind at times, and Sutherland cherishes the time he’s able to spend with his family, and being able to sneak out for the odd round of golf.
But Sutherland is eternally grateful for his path in life.
“The games and career have been everything I could have dreamed of,” he says. “The best part is the team of NHL officials I have been able to part of. A truly great family. When we leave the rink after a game, as long as both teams know we worked hard and did everything on my crew’s part to uphold the integrity of the game. The ultimate goal for me as an official is that win or lose, the teams involved felt a fair game took place.”
Honoured to be inducted to Richmond Sports Wall of Fame
Sports officials generally see themselves as the Rodney Dangerfields of their profession. Outside of the close officiating family, there’s isn’t a lot of acknowledgement for the important roles they play. That leaves accolades few and far between.
So when longtime NHL referee Kelly Sutherland (whose NHL jersey hangs prominently in the Richmond Ice Centre lobby to inspire local youth) learned he was being inducted to the Richmond Sports Wall of Fame recently, he was naturally elated. And a little surprised.
“This recognition is truly an honour,” he said, quick to credit the many people that have helped him along the way to his success.
“People who gave me opportunities and guidance, mentors on and off the ice, as well as my teammates I go to work with every game. I owe them al a great amount of gratitude,” he says.
“And last but not least, my family who have been my greatest supporters through good and tough times. This award would not have been possible of not for everyone’s help.”
Sutherland, who began officiating locally at the age of 11, cherishes the fact he made it to the top of his profession, and is even more appreciative now that he is a senior referee in the NHL.
“I get to lead my team by example, and share knowledge and wisdom with the next generation of referees coming into the league,” he says. (Hockey) is a great game to be part of, and I have been very fortunate to have made a career of it. Even after all these years, there is not a day I don’t enjoy going to work.”