TORONTO (Apr. 2) — Ron Wicks, the longest–serving on–ice official in National Hockey League history, died peacefully Friday night at 8:43 in Brampton Civic Hospital. He was 75 and surrounded by his family — Barb, his wife of 52 years; children Lisa and Brian. The cause of death was liver cancer.
His condition having deteriorated since Monday, Ron requested, early on Friday, that he be disconnected from intravenous fluids and oxygen. Blessedly, he was in no pain toward the end of his life.
As he noted on his personal website last week — and emailed to close friends — Ron was hoping to “hang around” long enough to watch The Masters golf tournament, which begins next Thursday. Now, he’ll have a bird’s–eye view of the entire course at Augusta National.
Ron spent his final week saying so long to the biggest names in the hockey world. He spoke with Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Scotty Bowman, Darryl Sittler and others. A special phone–call came from Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth, who spent 20 minutes on Tuesday night chatting with Ron and Lisa from Dunedin, Fla. Jerry then kicked off Friday night’s broadcast of the Toronto–Boston exhibition game from Olympic Stadium in Montreal by saying hello to Ron and his family. The former ref chose to not watch TV while in palliative care. “As long as he has his radio head–set and Blue Jays baseball, he’s happy,” Barb told me on Monday, when I visited Ron with former NHL officiating colleagues Bruce Hood and Ron Asselstine.
Wicks was diagnosed with cancer in late–2013 and underwent a 7½–hour operation to remove half his liver. It was followed by more than 20 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. The aggressive treatment provided him nearly two years of relative health; his condition began to worsen in mid–December. Weakened by weight–loss and an inability to tolerate food, he entered palliative care three weeks ago.
Early in the 1960–61 season, Wicks became the youngest official to work a game in the NHL — he had just celebrated his 20th birthday and found himself on the ice as a linesman at Madison Square Garden in New York. He spent the overwhelming majority of time between 1960 and 1967 honing his craft in the American, Central and Western hockey leagues. His first big break occurred during the 1964 Stanley Cup playoffs, when NHL officiating supervisor Carl Voss elevated him as a linesman. Ron worked two of the most memorable post–season games involving the Toronto Maple Leafs: Game 7 of the Cup semifinals at the Montreal Forum, remembered for Dave Keon’s hattrick that powered the Leafs past the Canadiens… and Game 6 of the final round at the Detroit Olympia — still legendary for an overtime goal scored by Toronto defenseman Bob Baun while playing on a fractured foot (the Leafs won the Cup at home in Game 7).
Wicks spent the following three years as a referee in the minor leagues. When the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams for the 1967–68 season, he made the jump, full–time, along with such other refs as Bruce Hood, Wally Harris, Lloyd Gilmour, Bob Sloan, Dave Newell and Bryan Lewis. Ron worked until the end of 1985–86, refereeing the All–Star game on Feb. 4 of that season in Hartford. He conducted the opening face–off between Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — a photo of which graced the cover of his 2009 memoir.
BETTER TIMES: MY PHOTO OF RON (RIGHT) WITH BEST PAL AND FORMER NHL REFEREEING COLLEAGUE BRUCE HOOD. THIS WAS TAKEN IN NOVEMBER 2014 AT AN NHL ALUMNI GATHERING IN MARKHAM, NORTHEAST OF TORONTO. RON HAD FULLY RECOVERED FROM HIS CANCER SURGERY.
After recovering from his cancer operation, Ron began to attend the gathering of NHL alumni at a Shopsy’s restaurant in Markham (on the first Monday of each month). He and Bruce Hood alternated driving to the event and were inseparable friends. It was during these lunch meetings that I had the privilege of getting to know Ron. He was an immeasurably warm person and I took to him immediately. The alumni gatherings lasted roughly two hours — barely enough time for Ron to share his multitude of stories from more than two decades in the NHL. He followed my blog and nearly always emailed a kind response afterward.
I will miss receiving those messages.
Ron emailed just after Christmas with a box of NHL programs he wanted me to have; they were from games he’d officiated in the 1970’s. “The memorabilia will be great for your blog,” he said. At the time, I considered it a grandiose gesture; typical of this wonderful man who probably wished to clean out some “stuff” from his basement. Only when I learned of his relapse did I understand the unspoken — it was Ron’s parting gift to me. I’ll cherish those items and share them with you in a future blog.
I conclude now with words I made certain to tell Ron in a private chat during my hospital visit with him on Monday. I am stridently a proponent of the mournful ballad written in 1988 by Mike Rutherford and B.A. Robertson; then recorded by Rutherford’s English rock band Mike + The Mechanics. Entitled In The Living Years, it addresses a son’s regret over unresolved conflict with his deceased father. The chorus: “Say it loud, say it clear… you can listen as well as you hear… it’s too late when we die… to admit we don’t see eye to eye.” Morally, the ballad can apply to any person as it pertains to another. The unmistakable message: That conflict be resolved; forgiveness granted; words of love and affection spoken… in the living years.
What I said to Ron was this: In life, many things can be acquired through purchase. But, one item cannot be bought, sold, negotiated or bartered in any way. It must be earned, without equivocation, and never, ever compromised. In my faith — Judaism — and in the Hebrew language, it is called “shem tov.”
English translation: A good name.
Ron Wicks will carry that through eternity.