Everybody has a story: Mark Wheler reaches NHL Milestone
Mark Wheler knew for a long time he wanted to make a career out of working the lines on the ice.
Born in North Battleford but growing up across the bridge in Battleford, Wheler loved sports like most young boys do.
Though looking back, he says kids from small communities may not appreciate the amount of time they have to enjoy their favourite sports.
“We had great minor hockey with towns like Unity, Rosetown and Kindersley and all that stuff,” Wheler said. “We were really lucky, especially when I see with our kids here in the big city. They play one-hour games and we would play full-length games and ride the bus everywhere. It was amazing, I don’t know how mom and dad did it with me being the youngest of seven kids.”
Wheler now lives in Calgary and says his life continued to gravitate around sports as he got into high school.
“I started to go to the old rink in Battleford where it was natural ice and you go out and scrape the ice between periods of the old senior teams games and be kind of a rink rat,” he said. “Now I realize how much of a thing those small town rinks are compared to the suburban rinks here.”
Like many younger brothers, Mark saw his older brother Ken working as a referee in the old Western Canadian Hockey League and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time back then because they needed linesmen in the old Saskatchewan Junior league back in the North Battleford Barons days,” Wheler reminisced. “When I was 16, I started working lines there, which is almost unheard of these days. I had been doing it for a couple years and maybe was a little bigger than some of the guys, had the mentorship of my brother and a keen interest in what was going on.”
After graduating high school Wheler knew he wanted to take his officiating career to the next level, which meant relocation.
“I moved to Saskatoon and the main reason was to work in the Western Hockey League,” Wheler admitted. “Other than ‘don’t start smoking,’ the other thing Ken told me was to get an education. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket because you never know.”
Taking his brother’s advice, Wheler took a marketing major and ended up with a job working for Molson over the summer and a regular job upon graduating from college.
Despite having officiating as seemingly a second job, Wheler says it was always his first priority.
“My Molson boss told me I was working my hockey around my Molson work, but if you hooked me to a lie detector I was probably doing it the other way around,” he laughed. “It was a really busy time. I would come home from Molson, throw my briefcase down, grab my bag and go referee a hockey game. I really enjoyed it but I knew I couldn’t do it forever.”
With the Canadian Hockey League’s top tournament the Memorial Cup being hosted in Seattle in 1992, Wheler made it clear he wanted to be part of the officiating crew for the tournament.
“I expressed how important I thought that was to my possible future career and said ‘don’t pass me over’ because I worked the Memorial Cup in 1989 which was in Saskatoon,” he said. “I really wanted to earn my spot and I was fortunate enough to work it in 1992, and the cool thing is I worked it with Brad Watson and Lonnie Cameron, who worked my 1,500th game with on Friday. I worked the Memorial Cup final with them in 1992.”
As for what he remembers about that tournament, the details were hazy.
“I don’t remember much, I do remember Scott Niedermayer for Kamloops making just a great pass. It was almost like he looked up at the clock, saw how much time was left, made a great pass which stayed onside and then the puck was in the net and it was over,” he said.
Due to the National Hockey League expanding to Tampa Bay and Ottawa in 1992, they needed more officials. While it was the opportunity Wheler had been looking for, it wasn’t as though it was a slam-dunk decision to take the position.
“I think it was June or early July when they called me,” he said. “I didn’t just automatically say yes because believe it or not it involved a pretty good pay cut from my job at Molson. My wife had a great job in Saskatoon, she loved her boss and loved her job but we thought ‘how could we not take this opportunity?’ I think she said to me ‘I’d rather see a little less of a happy person than more of a person who’s not happy’ because she knew this was the job that gave me the opportunity I always wanted to have.”
Working as an on-ice official in the NHL meant there would be stretches of time when Wheler wouldn’t be home, then stretches when he would be home for an extended period of time.
Wheler gives full credit to his wife Barb for taking care of his family while he was away.
“She worked hard while I was travelling so much. Basically had to take care of those kids full-time when I was away,” he laughed. “But at the same time there’s the extremes because if I’m home for a week I’d be changing diapers and taking them out for walks in the morning. I think sometimes our neighbours must have thought ‘what the heck does that guy do for a living?’ because they wouldn’t see me for a week and then all the sudden I’m home for a bunch of days.”
Wheler worked his first NHL game Oct. 10, 1992 when the Toronto Maple Leafs came to Calgary. In his own mind, he tried to play it down to calm himself.
“You’re hyped up but I was older than some starting my career. I had worked some big games in the WHL with league finals and Memorial Cups, so I tried to draw on that experience,” he said. “But it’s not the same, it’s a way bigger scale. I worked with some veteran guys, and what you tell yourself is, trust what you’ve learned and that it’s just another game, don’t be in awe.”
Though it’s difficult not to be in awe when you’re on the same ice surface as the players you grew up watching on television.
“I remember I stepped back a few times and thought ‘woah, that’s Doug Gilmour over there,’” he said. “But then you realize you can’t feel that way. It’s a white team and a blue team and you just go out there and react.”
Professional athletes are aware of their surroundings when it comes to who they have to interact with on a daily basis. While some players are welcoming and friendly, that’s not the case for all of them.
“One that I remember in particular was Kelly Hrudey who was playing goal for the LA Kings back at the old Forum and he said ‘Hey! You’re new here aren’t you? What’s your name?’”
“I’ve gotten to know him and watch him on TV, and people are who they are. There are some guys that you don’t mix as well with and you just go out there and be yourself. You’re not always going to agree and I think the key is just don’t be a jerk. There’s the odd guy who tends to get more personal quicker, there’s a lot of back and forth that goes on and you just have to be yourself or you’ll wear yourself out trying to be someone that you’re not.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Wheler says catching up with other referees and linesmen is one of the best parts of the job.
“You get to the rink about an hour and half before the game,” he said. “You have a coffee and talk about the game. That’s one of the great things. We have a lot of great guys. Young guys, old guys, Canadians, Americans, referees, linesman and we all enjoy each others company. That’s one of the beauties of the job, you just enjoy that time in the room.”
Wheler has been working in the NHL for more than two decades, which means he’s been a victim of the three work stoppages the league has gone through.
The first one in 1994 was a real eye opener for him.
“That was so foreign to me,” he said. “I was still getting used to thinking of it as a business as well as a sport. I knew nothing about how it worked, who’s idea it was, who was fighting with what. We just kind of sat back and waited for the game to come back. It was just very foreign to think I’m ready to go but there’s no games to work. I’m an employee of the game and I work when they tell me to work.”
While the league resumed play in January of 1995, 10 years later the entire 2004-05 season was lost due to a lockout, one Wheler remembers more clearly.
“I was coming off my best year, having worked game seven of the Stanley Cup Final, then all the sudden the game was gone,” he said. “You can drive yourself nuts trying to figure it out or you can trust that the two sides will come to some sort of agreement that will make the game better when it comes back.”
The 2004 final between Calgary and Tampa Bay wasn’t the first final Wheler had worked, but it was the first game seven he had ever worked.
“It was really cool,” he admitted. “I remember sitting in the room before the game thinking since I started thinking about officiating that’s the game I always wanted to work. Winner takes all, the last game of the year. It’s the only game in town, you know your game is at 7:00 and there’s no late game coming on out west afterwards. I don’t remember a lot about the game because it’s just a blur, but I do remember afterwards thinking to myself ‘OK, you can breathe now."
Despite it being the most important and most watched game of the season, Wheler says it’s easier than you might think not to get too excited for it as an official.
“It’s probably tougher than a normal game, but at that stage the players also know the implications of a bad penalty or pushing and shoving things too far,” he said. “They discipline themselves to a certain degree because they know how much is on the line. So a lot of times those bigger games are more civilized.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Calgary Flames 2-1 in game seven to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Despite a long career in the NHL, Wheler had never been chosen to officiate at an international tournament until he received the highest honour, working at the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Russia.
“I had never done anything like that,” he said. “The Olympics was really special because I went with some good friends. My brother was there supervising, which was really cool.”
While he wasn’t given the gold medal game to work, he was prepared to go if another official had to leave the game.
“I was actually standby so I was in the room watching on TV,” he said. “I would have been ready to go if anyone got hurt.”
Because of the three lockouts Wheler has been through, his milestone 1,500th NHL game happened two years later than it normally would have. That day was last Friday when the Calgary Flames hosted the Anaheim Ducks.
While he never looked too far ahead during his career, Wheler always hoped he’d get to this point.
“I think I have a puck from every 100 games I worked because I never knew which 100th was going to be my last,” he laughed. “But it started to be real in the last couple of years. What it meant to me was ‘wow that’s a pretty good career.’ You’ve made it there and you’ve survived and I still think I’ve got some good years left in me, so it’s not the end of it.”
There was a pre-game ceremony to celebrate Wheler’s milestone, which he had experienced before, but as part of someone else’s ceremony, and not one for himself.
“I knew they celebrated it with that little ceremony where your family comes out,” he said. “You hear from a lot of people you’ve known for a lot of years. Lots of emails and texts so that was really cool too.”
While officials aren’t forced to talk to the media following games like players and coaches are, Wheler says they still have other people to answer to.
“I don’t know what that would even be like,” he said. “Believe me, we answer to ourselves and to our bosses. We’re accountable; they just don’t parade us out to the media. Our guys are as honest as can be when the time comes, and with our bosses we answer for what went wrong. How did you see it, why did you see it that way and if it’s something that you probably should have seen, you’re made aware of it. Nobody feels worse than we do, because the last thing we want to do is have a screw up have any impact on the game because our guys have an immense amount of pride and take their jobs very seriously.”
While it is technically his job to be perfect all times, it’s practically impossible to do so over a career that has spanned as long as Wheler’s has.
“I’ve had plays where the video shows the puck came out of the zone and I waved it off and it ends up in the back of the net,” he admitted. “You have a handful of those over 23 years, and that’s the worst feeling in the world. You didn’t see it right and you made a mistake and you would give anything to have it back. It’s a sick feeling and that’s why you need to be prepared and work hard every minute of every game.”
Wheler worked game number 1,501 in Minnesota Sunday night and with his work ethic and passion for the game there’s a lot of hard work left to be done before he puts his whistle away for good.