Wednesday, February 23, 2022


 If you happen to be of a certain, uh, vintage, you may have seen him in the early 1990's working the lines of the hallowed old Stadium during the prosperous days of the St. John's Maple Leafs.

    Or, perhaps, ten years ago you could have watched him officiating the St. John's Ice Caps at the Mile One Center.

   You might have even witnessed him skating up and down the ice just last week at the Mary Brown's Center during a Growlers game.

   Any way you care to look at it, Jim Vail has been blowing his whistle professionally for over 30 years. And as far as whistle-blowers are concerned, he's been an extraordinarily good one.

" I came up through the Dartmouth (Nova Scotia) minor hockey system as a player," he recalls. " Around the age of 15 I realized that I probably had a better opportunity of climbing the ladder as a referee rather than the average player that I was."

" One of my former coaches had been involved in officiating, and he encouraged me to give it a whirl. I attended all the clinics that were required back then, and started off doing Atom and Pee Wee games at 16. After I graduated from St Mary's University (Halifax) in 1988, I was working junior and senior games."

   Then a major turning point occurred in his personal as well as his professional career in 1989.

" I accepted a job over here in Newfoundland," he recounted. " Eventually, it turned out to be a great opportunity for me in officiating. The baby Leafs were about to start up in 1991."

" It was really a good situation. Six of us were hired to do the home games. I spent a lot of years doing what I loved and got to see so many future NHL'ers every night. I had the pleasure of watching guys like Felix Potvin and Damian Rhodes. And I got to work with refs like Wes McCauley, Dan O'Rourke, Dave Jackson and Paul Devorski. All of them got to the NHL."

   Jim Vail is a man of great character and humility. 

" I had no real aspirations of making it to the NHL," he remembers. " I always thought I had the best of both worlds; a professional career and I still got to go home to my family every night."

   His resume is most inspiring.

" I was selected locally in 1994 to do an International Junior tournament in Japan," he noted. " I was fortunate enough to referee an AHL All-Star game, and even got to work the Calder Cup finals."

" That was a whole different ball game," he smiled. " Every single call is important, and you realize that even one bad call can be such a difference maker."

   Judging by his impressive body of work, bad calls have been about as regular as a Halley's Comet sighting over his 30 years in stripes. 

" I even got to wear the armband for 6 games during my AHL career. One of the times was when I substituted for Wes McCauley."

   In 2014, he was widely recognized for his superior work on the ice. Jim was presented with the Michael Condon Award which honors an official for his outstanding service and contributions to the AHL. It's the Holy Grail of officiating. And while he attempted to downplay the reward, his sense of pride was easily discernible.

He remains optimistic about his future in the game.

" I still enjoy the hockey and working with other officials. It's still a lot of fun meeting new people. My mind feels sharp and I try to stay in shape by spending time at the gym. I guess as long as my body holds up, and I'm not a liability out there, I'd like to keep going for a little while yet."

He spoke candidly about changes the game has undertaken over his several decades of seeing it up close.

" One big difference is the fighting. When I started out, there'd be as many as 8 fights a night. Not so much in the way of fisticuffs now, though. The rules are designed for faster players to showcase their talents."

" We now use a 3-man system in the ECHL games. That's much different the conventional 4-man system we were used to for so many years."

Jim remains very much a man of integrity.

" I've always given 110% whether I'm doing a recreational game or a professional game. The effort is always there and I always want to get the call right."

   He shared a grave concern with today's game and its' future that underscores the passion he holds dearly to his profession.

" It bothers me a lot to see the bullying that goes on in the games. today. Young officials, who are essentially good kids who love the game and are trying to earn a few extra dollars, are being bullied constantly by some of the parents. It's sad to see. And we're losing some real good kids because of it."

   Since he started as a teen, Jim Vail has spent 40 years of hearing abuse of all description from players , coaches and fans. The assault from critics in the media, press and talk shows is relentless. Chants of " Three Blind Mice" accompany him in many rinks as a familiar refrain. However, being the professional that he has become, it all rolls off his broad shoulders like bullets off a steel door. Yet, it's the abuse of the younger officials that hits him squarely in the heart. 

" I've had no regrets," he concluded. " I've certainly enjoyed my many years of officiating up to now. I've visited a lot of great cities, made many new friends and watched a lot of them graduate to the NHL."

   And while he spoke at great length about how good the game has been to him, Jim Vail has been a whole lot better at giving back to the game. 

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