In simplest terms, all that players, coaches and fans ask of NHL officials is that they never make the game about themselves. What denotes a job well done is unlacing their skates at the end of the night just as it started: as nameless, anonymous, utterly inconsequential to the result.
A believer in all things sacred in the NHL, veteran official Wes McCauley lives by this ideology. It’s the reason he’s one of the very best independent arbitrators on skates. But every once and while, even he can’t help himself but to become involved in an NHL game.
Unless you live in McCauley’s world, which is mostly small dressing rooms with grey walls tucked away in the bowels of rinks across North America, and as far away from social media as possible, you know that he’s gained a small measure of prominence for his dramatic calls following goal reviews and often irrepressible excitement for a competitive scrap between willing participants.
What you probably don’t take from his on-mic moments is how uncomfortable he is with the added attention that comes with. The antithesis to the discernible smugness of a Gene Steratore (office supplies won’t soon assist McCauley with a goal review), the 45-year-old is almost apologetic at mere mention of the limelight ever shifting to him.
“Sometimes I just get caught, you know,” McCauley said, sheepish, in an interview over the phone. “I’m just caught up in the game. When I’m out there, i’m into it. I enjoy it. It’s not really a job – it’s what I love to do.
“I think it’s just something that comes from my love of the sport, growing up in it and being fortunate enough to be a part of it.”
The thrill of being out on NHL ice and complete immersion in the game is the closest conclusion he would draw as to the reason for his theatrics, histrionics and ultimately, his viral fame.
Recalling his now famous, “FIVE MINUTES EACH FOR FIGHTING” call after Torey Krug and Andrew Shaw settled a score by trading punches less than a minute into the game last season, he rationed that the Original Six matchup, which now promised to be competitive and spirited throughout, engendered a genuine excitement for the next 59 minutes.
The consequence of that: YouTube gold.
Zest for the moment is the most significant factor, but a few other items help amplify McCauley as well. He explained that he views it as his responsibility to explain the call to the very best of his ability, as to help fans understand the call or the reason the call was made. Perhaps that’s what gives rise to the drawn-out dramatic goal decisions. He is battling fan noise, after all.
And the final factor that surfaced from a lengthy conversation with the official is the influence from his family, though not necessarily from the one you might expect.
McCauley’s father, John, a former NHL referee and the league’s former director of officiating, obviously had some influence on his son’s career path – but it’s Wes’s mother that made certain her son learned to project.
“I think it goes back to my mom making me do public speaking,” he said. “When I was a kid I was put in speech contests in school. Maybe she’d be proud of my public speaking. All that practice,” he laughed, “It’s doing okay.”
Of course, there are a few other family members McCauley must consider as he blindly navigates the world of viral fame. If he at all sounds like a father cognizant of embarrassing his three children so far, well that’s because he is.
Plugged into social media, McCauley’s kids are his window to the world to which he unintentionally stars, and also serve as his biggest critics.
“My kids think I’m crazy,” he said.
“Sometimes they are like, ‘Oh Dad, seriously? You’re embarrassing.'”
It’s the 10-year-old, though the strongest supporter of the on-mic antics, who provides the harshest evaluations.
Recalling the time his theatrical delay during a goal review left Alain Vigneault in stitches on the New York Rangers bench, McCauley’s youngest cut him down a size: “Dad, you weren’t even that good.”
For what it’s worth, he agrees.
Fodder for players and coaches who, like McCauley’s kids, are also quick to give him a hard time for his moments on the mic (“Another one, eh Wes?”), but the occasional laugh at his expense has in no way damaged his reputation as an official.
With game speed and scrutiny from the outside reaching all-time highs, it takes that fully-immersed, completely-swept-away passion that McCauley brings to the rink – to perform a job he describes as a “mental and physical challenge” – that leaves him “spent” every night. What other reason would McCauley be assigned games at the last five Stanley Cup Finals and the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey?
Doing what’s necessary to perform the job to the best of his abilities and laughing off the consequences of his exuberance, McCauley is one of the best, and perhaps the most recognizable referee in the NHL today.
The latter, however, he promises was never intentional.
“Oh, no. Geez. We’re just in the game.”
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