A Dying Man’s Acceptance

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.
Ron Wicks

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.”


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.”


10 comments on “A Dying Man’s Acceptance

  1. I am very saddened to hear of Ron’s illness it came as quite a shock when my sons Randy and Kevin told me on Easter Sunday.I have many good memories of the times we had years ago .Barb and Ron you were very good friends during the NHL years and after.Ron your smile and laughter will always be with me and my family.Sincerely Joanne Tufford

  2. I had the pleasure of spending the day golfing with Ron, and Bruce Hood. I thought I had stories to tell,
    But those guys topped all mine. Thanks Ron, for letting me be a part of your life, even if it was only for a day.. May the wind blow gently at your feet.
    Derek Keough, Kitchener, Ontario

  3. I remember Ron from Philadelphia in the days of the Broad Street Bullies. He is a very likeable man and I remember going on a road trip in the 70’s and we were wandering around the old Winnipeg Arena and met Ron. He first words were are you lost this isn’t the Spectrum. I asked Ron where he was going from here and he said he did not know. He would get up in the morning and look at his book to find out what he was doing. Ron was a great referee and my prayers are with him and his family at this time.

  4. Very saddened to hear this about Ron. He was my favorite referee back in my days as a young official. I was able to meet and socialize with him several years while attending Bruce’s referee school in Guelph in the 80’s and found him to be a great teacher and respected gentleman. His guidance, although brief, helped me in my years as an official and now an official’s supervisor. Prayers to him and his family at this time.

  5. I am saddened to hear about my “Uncle Ron’s” failing health following his battle with cancer. It’s been years since I’ve seen Ron and Barb, unfortunately. Ron and Barb played a significant role in my development from the time I was a young boy. We spent summers at their lovely home in Brampton around the pool. My mother and father (Gail and Don) were close friends with Ron and Barb during the early years growing up in Sudbury, ON, and they are “God-parents” to my sister Lori. I remember like it was yesterday when Ron contributed to my early hockey development by supplying some essential gear (helmet, etc) and providing some inspirational coaching relative to conduct on the ice, and sportsmanship. It amazes me how that has stuck with me throughout my life nearing 50 years old. I was so appreciatative, like a kid in a candy store, when Uncle Ron would let me choose “official” NHL pucks from this “clover-leaf” puck bag back in the 70’s, and I still have those pucks today. I plan on visiting Ron this week at the hospital to personally thank Ron, and Barb for the love they extended to me, my sisters and our family during my developmental years. I agree whole heartedly with others who have commented about Ron’s character and class. Very well respected man who will not be forgotten.

  6. I had the pleasure of formally meeting Ron in 2011 in my role as Secretary of the City of Brampton Sports Hall of Fame. Ron was inducted as a “Builder” that year. He was most gracious and so well spoken in his acceptance speech. Our paths would cross again at the Brampton YMCA in 2014 as he attempted to regain his life following his operation. Ron, we certainly “wowed” them in Yoga with our dexterity. I am honoured to carry the Yoga torch for both of us! You will always be my inspiration!

  7. Ron was kind enough to help run a hockey school for old timers in Brampton quite a few years back. He taught me how to skate properly. I am now 69, still playing. Thank you Ron.

  8. Bobby Orr called and spoke to myself and dad this morning.” What a class act”my dad said. When he put the phone down he looked at me and said, “now I’ve talked to everyone I’ve wanted too”

    Thank you Bobby
    Thank you to everyone for your phone calls, e-mails and funny stories. He is enjoying them all.

    Lisa, Brian and Barb Wicks

    1. I am saddened to hear the new about Mr. Wicks. A hideous disease poised to take a great man. I became an official after watching Mr. Wicks. I was 12. I am 50 now and still officiating minor hockey. Thanks and peace.

      Thom Harley

  9. I remember Ron well on the ice. I am 60 years old and have been watching NHL hockey since I was very young. When you have two older brother, an older sister, mom and dad who wouldn’t miss a game you don’t have much say in what to watch when a game was on. It was always Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night in front of the TV so I grew to love the game. I remember Vern Buffey very well as I was good friends with his son. Ron, what a very brave man you are.

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