TORONTO (Mar. 27) — There is obviously no pleasure in speaking with a person whose life is coming to an end. But, the moment does incorporate honor and privilege.
In 57–plus years, I’ve encountered the situation only twice: With my beloved mother, Sandee, in the final days of 1995; and now, with a relatively new friend, yet a man that I’ve admired since my youth. Ron Wicks, 76, the longest–serving on–ice official in National Hockey League history, is in palliative care — the final stages of life — at Brampton Civic Hospital. He was diagnosed with cancer in late–2013 and underwent a monstrous, 7½–hour operation that removed half his liver. It was followed by more than 20 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. The aggressive treatment gave him time to enjoy his large circle of family and friends, with grim knowledge that the disease, barring a miracle, would only be constrained temporarily. Shortly after the new year in January, Ron began to feel unwell and lose a considerable amount of weight. On Thursday of this week, he gallantly sent out the following email to 21 people — myself included:
Hi there friends…
My disease has caught up with me and I hope to stick around to watch The Masters, and then soon my journey here may be ending but continuing from up above the clouds. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.
You may pass this news on to any others.
Currently I am at Brampton Civic Hospital, Palliative Care 5N room 481. Thanks for joining me on my skate around the rink.
I posted Ron’s message on my Facebook page and it led to an absolute deluge — an outpouring of sympathy from friends, ex–colleagues and complete strangers. Nothing has ever come close in my experience with social media. On Friday, I called Ron’s hospital room and did not receive an answer. His daughter, Lisa, emailed suggesting she would try and put me in touch with him sometime over the weekend. That opportunity arose on Saturday night while I was with my son at an Ontario Junior Hockey League game in Georgetown, northwest of Toronto, and not far from where Ron was resting in Brampton.
“He’s tired,” Lisa said of her father. “I’m going to give him the phone. Talk slowly.”
“Hello, Howard, thanks for your call,” Ron began, sounding a bit rough, but clear.
I informed him of the incredible Facebook response to his Thursday email (which he also posted on his personal website — http://www.ronwicks.ca/. “Yes, I’ve been told many saw it,” Ron said. “I was thinking the message might have been a bit over the top, but, what the heck, it reflected how I’m feeling. I’ve heard from a lot of people since then, including Wayne Gretzky, which was very nice. Even all these years after my career, I can’t tell whether guys liked me as a referee. I guess some of them did.”
I last saw Ron at a gathering of NHL alumni in Markham, Ont. on Jan. 6. He brought with him, that day, a large box of programs from games he’d officiated in the 1970’s at such arenas as Madison Square Garden (New York), the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver; the Richfield Coliseum (home of the ill–fated Cleveland Barons); McNichols Arena in Denver (home of the similarly–fated Colorado Rockies) and old Chicago Stadium. He wanted me to have the programs as memorabilia for my blog. I thought of it as nothing more than a grand gesture… until last week, when I got news of his deteriorating condition. I then realized he knew something I didn’t on that afternoon, and the items became even more meaningful.
“It was right about then that I started feeling lousy again,” Ron confirmed. “The weight just began falling off of me and I wasn’t exactly plump to begin with. I’ve probably dropped 20 to 25 pounds since that day. The tumor in my liver is quite large, the doctors say. It never disappeared completely, even after that big operation I had upon the initial diagnosis. I guess the cancer has spread. I’m weak, but not in any pain.”
RON WICKS, LEFT, POSING WITH YOURS TRULY AND FELLOW EX–REFEREE BRUCE HOOD IN MARKHAM, ONT. ON JAN. 6 OF THIS YEAR. RON HAD JUST GIVEN ME THE BOX OF OLD NHL PROGRAMS. THOUGH FRAIL AT THE TIME, HE HAS SINCE DROPPED MORE THAN 20 POUNDS.
Wicks was the youngest NHL official ever when he began his career at Madison Square Garden in October 1960 — just after his 20th birthday. He established himself as a linesman, also working games in the American, Western and Central hockey leagues. When the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams for the 1967–68 season, Ron became a full–time referee. As he has often joked: “When I started as a linesman, they gave me a bag of marbles. And, when I lost all my marbles, they made me a referee.”
It was a sound decision. Ron went on to appear in 1,067 NHL games between 1960 and 1986, spanning more years than any official in the sport’s history. His career coincided with many of the greatest all–time players — from Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito to Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Mario Lemieux. In his final season of 1985–86, he refereed the NHL All–Star game in Hartford — dropping the puck between Gretzky and Lemieux. For reasons than cannot be explained, Ron isn’t yet a member of the referees/linesmen section in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The award, when it comes, will be posthumous.
“I’m at peace with my situation,” Ron told me on Saturday. “It’s a lot easier than fighting against something you can’t control. I’ve had a great life blessed with a wonderful family and a long, rewarding career in the NHL. If there’s a God, I’m looking forward to meeting him… and to seeing some old friends.
“This situation doesn’t scare me anymore. I’m not afraid of dying.”