LAUREL, Md. — On a frosty weekday morning between Christmas and New Years’ Eve, while pregame pop tunes flood this suburban rink, the NHL’s most enthusiastic referee settles into a corner section of the metal bleachers, far fresher than his recent travel schedule might suggest.
Last night, Wes McCauley dropped the opening puck for Capitals-Rangers at Madison Square Garden around 8:10 p.m. This morning, he caught a 7 a.m. Amtrak train, cabbed to a downtown D.C. hotel and boarded a yellow school bus that shuttled him—and fellow parents from the Cheverus (Maine) High School boys hockey team—here for the final day of a holiday tournament. Next up: a Boston-bound 3:50 p.m. flight to see his teenage daughter play, followed by a Dec. 30 assignment in New Jersey and an ensuing work swing through western Canada.
Too much? Not even close.
“Do you love what you do?” he asks, wearing an NHL-branded beanie with an overnight bag slung over his shoulder. “I could live at a rink all day. There’s nothing better.”
Perhaps you already guessed this. After all, McCauley is probably the only official to ever inspire four different YouTube compilation videos highlighting his best calls, including two that presently boast more than 100,000 views apiece. There was the delightful put-up-your-dukes fight signal thrown during Canadiens-Bruins last season, delivered with graveled-voiced gusto like a ringside wrestling promoter. And the dramatic cadence he employed while announcing the results of a video review on Dec. 20, which sent Rangers coach Alain Vigneault into a giggle fit and later earned a glowing one-word assessment from winger Michael Grabner: “Legendary.”
At the family household in Portland, Maine, hometown of his wife Bethany, these moments were predictably met with eyerolls from their three children—Maggie, 10; Emma, 14, a freshman at Cheverus, and Riley, 17, a junior defenseman for the Stags. “They think I’m crazy,” the 46-year-old McCauley says with a laugh. “They think I embarrass them sometimes. But one of their friends goes, ‘That’s just your dad. That’s how he always is.’”
And who is Wes McCauley, exactly? One of the league’s most respected officials, for starters, an annual fixture in player polls who has worked five straight Stanley Cup Finals and should reach 900 career regular-season games next month. He is also a former Division I defenseman with several minor-league stops on his resume; a workout freak joins ex-pros around Portland for 6:30 a.m. skates; a father who literally takes planes, trains and automobiles on off-days for his kids.
His trademark zest is no secret, either; fellow officials often rib him about how loudly he yells into their wireless mics. But at the essence of every viral call are traits explaining how McCauley reached the peak of his profession: command, prudence, empathy, humility and, yes, humor. “He might be the only guy who can do that stuff,” linesman Steve Barton says, “because of all the success he’s had as an official."
Who is Wes McCauley? Maybe there is an even shorter answer. It’s just like folks around hockey tell him at every turn: You remind me so much of your dad.
The signing ceremony took place outside Toronto, at an office building near the airport. This was April 1989, a few months before Wes began his freshman season at Michigan State. Ordinarily the NHL wouldn’t bother with Division I letters of intent, let alone host outgoing high school students at its headquarters. Then again, not everyone was raised by the director of officiating.
Few kids fantasize about wearing stripes and blowing whistles, but in hindsight it’s hard to imagine Wes taking any other path. Across a career that spanned a decade on the ice and eight more years as an executive—the transition was hastened after a fan sucker-punched him at a bar, causing an eye injury—John McCauley never separated work and family. He brought Wes and younger brother Blaine everywhere, skates and sticks in tow, leaving them to play while he held meetings at rinks around the league: Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal…
An effective babysitting method, sure. And whether intentionally or not, the elder McCauley was also giving his sons an intimate look at his line of work. “I watched the way Dad handled people,” Wes says. “That was his strength. I’ve been standing beside him when irate general managers are losing their mind about what they felt was an injustice against their team. I’m thinking to myself, as a kid, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ Then I’d watch Dad bring them right down. Looking back, I think he used us to get out of situations. He’d go, ‘I’ve got the kids here.’ Sometimes you wonder, was this his way of diffusing things? Was there a method to his madness?”
One incident sticks out most. When the regular crew refused to work Game 4 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals, furious over a court ruling that allowed Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld to return behind the bench following a vulgar tirade toward referee Don Koharski, it was John McCauley who rallied several off-ice officials into emergency duty. Later that night, as the family left Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., a fan spotted them and asked for John’s autograph. As he obliged, the fan’s friend wondered aloud, “Why’d you do that?”
“That’s John McCauley,” the fan replied, “who saved hockey tonight.”
Almost exactly one year later—and two months after he proudly stood by while Wes committed to the Spartans—John unexpectedly developed complications from gallbladder surgery. On June 2, 1989, the family was getting ready to leave for the AHL meetings in Hilton Head, S.C., when he was rushed back to the hospital for another operation. “Everything seemed to be okay,” Wes says. “Mom [Irene] sent my brother, me and my sister [Bridget] home. A few hours later, she called and told us that we needed to get back. When we got there, he had passed on.”
The funeral, held at Holy Cross Parish in their hometown of Georgetown, Ontario, was packed with hockey luminaries paying their regards to a highly regarded man, among them Bobby Clarke, Ron MacLean, the entire Michigan State men’s hockey staff and Don Cherry, who later devoted an entire Coach’s Corner segment to honoring John McCauley’s life. “His dad was gregarious, outgoing, willing to share a joke and a laugh,” says Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s current director of officiating. “He wasn’t overly serious about himself. I see that in Wes.”
The legacy endures in other ways too. The digit on the back of his referee jersey isn’t just Wes paying tribute to Bobby Orr, though that was his favorite defenseman as a kid—he wears No. 4 because John McCauley was born on Oct. 4, 1944, and because Dad died at the age of 44.
Back on those cold metal bleachers, as host DeMatha takes an early 1-0 lead against Cheverus, McCauley is discussing his most memorable game. He does not choose his first NHL appearance on Jan. 20, 2003, or the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium, or the World Cup of Hockey later that year. Instead, he thinks about one otherwise unknown night 18 years ago, when he reffed Blaine’s pro hockey debut with the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers.
“How could you call two penalties on me?” Blaine asked afterwards, riding shotgun en route to Wes’s house in Cincinnati, where he would spend the entire ‘00-01 season.
“How could I not? I probably could’ve called four or five!”
By then, Wes was already a rising star in the business. After injuries ended his playing career during a brief stint abroad in Italy, he accepted an invitation to attend an NHL officiating school in Guelph, Ontario, around the time that the league was transitioning to a two-ref system. The classroom portion felt strange at first. “They’re asking about rules and I hadn’t even picked up the rulebook,” he says. So did gripping a whistle instead of a stick. But, according to Barton, who worked beside McCauley in the minors, “The players could sense that he was comfortable. Some people go their whole career trying to gain acceptance. Wes had that right away."
"His personality now, as a referee," says Vancouver assistant coach Newell Brown, who recruited McCauley to Michigan State, "you could see how well suited he was to it his entire life. It’s not an easy job. But I’d say that Wes makes it look pretty easy."
The story about his brother’s debut remains a fond memory in many ways; the family still laughs over Irene ripping into Wes upon hearing how often he dispatched Blaine into the penalty box. But there is a deeper lesson here. The following season, just as Blaine was making strides into the AHL, a puck struck him in the right eye. He never played hockey again. Between this and his father, McCauley needs no reminders about the fragility of life and sport. “I don’t take for granted being on the ice every day,” he says. “I just took a different path to fulfill my dream.”
So he gives back. He makes cameo coaching appearances at Riley’s practices, reffed one of Maggie’s youth games last year, and serves on the NHLOA’s five-member executive board alongside Barton. Life on the road can be lonely for new officials, since everyone travels alone, so McCauley makes himself available to “talk about plays, ask questions, just talk hockey,” Barton says. “Everyone has his number.” All while completing his master’s degree in coaching and leadership at Michigan State, writing papers in classes such as “Skill development in athletes” and “Promoting positive youth development in sport.”
It’s the second period now. Chervus still trails. McCauley motions toward the ice. “Look at these two guys out there,” he says, pointing at the officials. “They’re serving the game so my kid can play. Maybe I get to do it with a little brighter lights, but I’m no different than these two guys.”
Did you really just do that?
This was a rhetorical text. As McCauley’s former college teammate, retired NHL forward Bryan Smolinski knows how … passionate his best friend can get. And so when someone sent him that video of McCauley slugging the air in Boston and barking, “BOTH GUYS, FIVE MINUTES EACH FOR FIGHTING,” the retired NHL forward was hardly surprised.
“I can’t believe it took him so long,” Smolinski says.
Maybe McCauley was always meant for the big stage. He remembers entering public speaking competitions as a kid, delivering five-minute speeches on topics such a lacrosse and hockey. At Michigan State he was a pied piper of sorts, “the messenger of the upperclassmen,” Smolinski says. “Tell Wes, he’ll tell everybody else.” Now he keeps a list of favorite one-liners to whip out during games, like an impromptu quiz about the two players left on the ice from the ‘90 draft.
Answer: McCauley, chosen No. 150 by Detroit, and Jaromir Jagr.
The fighting call, on the other hand, the one that turned McCauley from a relatively anonymous whistleblower to someone with a dedicated Mortal Kombat remix, was improvised. “Sometimes I get caught in the moment,” he says. “I was like, ‘Just fire the signal!’ Maybe it shows a bit of my personality. Maybe guys look at me like I have nine heads.” No doubt that both can be true. Some officials prefer preparing for games with quiet, steely focus. “He is the opposite,” Barton says. “He talks a lot. He’s loud. I think there’s a lot of pent-up excitement. But it’s always fun to work with him. Officials look at the schedule and they go, I’ve got Wes tonight. It’ll be be fun.”
Still, to focus on the occasional flash of public pizazz is to ignore what drives McCauley behind the scenes. Early last summer, Barton took his family to visit the McCauleys in Maine. One morning, he asked Wes to work out. Big mistake. They awoke at 6 a.m., drove to a local gym and plowed through an 80-minute Crossfit workout. “I pride myself on being a big fitness guy,” Barton says. “It was insane. I was dying. I said, ‘What are you doing man? You just finished three and a half weeks ago. You’ve done five Stanley Cups in a row.”
“Five?” he recalls McCauley replying. “I want 13!”
As the horn sounds on a 2-0 Cheverus defeat, the future is far from his mind. He is thinking about more immediate matters, like whether he will catch that 3:50 p.m. flight, and how Riley could stand to move more in the offensive zone. The flattering headlines have been nice too, but those don't define his reputation anymore than dramatic pauses or mic malfunctions.
Stepping down from the stands, wandering into the lobby to find his family, McCauley smiles. “I guess no hiding these days, eh?”