In the O’Rourke hockey family, all eyes are watching for Number 9 in this year’s Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.
Dan O’Rourke doesn’t play for either team but he wears a black and white stripes and plays a prominent role on the ice, calling penalties and imposing law and order when needed, as he did in Games 3 and 5 of the final.
The 48-year-old brother of Prince George Cougars director of player development Steve O’Rourke is one of the only a handful of NHL referees who have earned the ultimate honour of working the series that will determine the champions of the league.
“I’m just proud of him, he’s done a great job and he’s good at what he does,” said Steve, who is two years younger than Dan. “You watch the game and I can pick my brother out with just how he skates and the size of him.”
This is the O’Rourke’s fourth Stanley Cup final. Dan was picked for the Vancouver-Boston final in 2011, worked the Pittsburgh-San Jose series in 2012 and the Los Angeles-New Jersey final in 2016.
“When he did the Vancouver-Boston final my parents (Janis and Tom) and myself were in the stands for that and it’s a little different because normally the parents are watching a player but they’re just as proud of how he got to the NHL as anyone else,” said Steve.
“He’s going to end up probably having a 20- or 22-year career, he’s still got lots of years left in him. He’s just turned 48 and he’s in fantastic shape. I know they’re trying to succession-plan them a little earlier now than a before because the game’s so fast.”
Dan is in the same bubble as the players and is staying in a hotel suite adjacent to Rogers Centre in Edmonton, where he’s been based since the start of the playoffs in August. They’ve been out for excursions to Commonwealth Stadium for outdoor workouts on the field and have been golfing with the players, which requires the entire course to be closed to the public during their rounds.
“He’s a mentally strong guy so it hasn’t really affected him,” said Steve. “His kids are older, but some of those players have newborn kids and it’s a hard thing. I wouldn’t want to be away from my kids for that long.”
Dan is now well past 60 days of being quarantined and he’s gotten to know the players like never before in pre-pandemic times.
“The officials don’t travel together with the teams,” said Steve. “You might go from city to city with the guys a couple times but for the most part you meet up with those guys for the night and do your games and you’re out the next day. Whereas this, they’ve formed a pretty good cohort with the teams on a day-to-day basis.”
O’Rourke’s path to top of the officials’ world is somewhat unusual. Before he donned the stripes, he established his reputation as a rough and tough left winger in the Western Hockey League. In 57 games over three seasons with the Tri-City Americans and Moose Jaw Warriors he collected eight goals and 28 points and a whopping 438 penalty minutes. He played four seasons of minor pro in the ECHL, Central Hockey League and International Hockey League when he decided to join the ranks of the officials.
“He was relatively tough as a player, to say the least,” said Steve. “He’s a big man and when he played he was six-foot-three, anywhere from 215 to 230 (pounds). In the old-style game there were a lot of fights and he was in the mix of that, but he was a good hockey player too and it’s translated to the NHL. He understands the game and understands the guys and he played that certain way where there’s the respect. ‘You gave him a slash, oh wait, there’s another slash, you’re even.’ But if there’s one slash he’ll call it.”
O’Rourke was a quick study in his climb to the NHL. In 1997, the year he ended his playing days, his size, skating ability and knowledge of the game led to him getting hired as an ECHL linesman, having attended the Ontario Hockey Association officials camp that summer. In only his second season, O’Rourke was selected to work as a linesman in the ECHL’s Kelly Cup championship series. The NHL signed him right after that to a minor league linesman contract and he worked 54 NHL games and 26 AHL games his first season, including the Calder Cup final series.
He was promoted to a full-time work in the NHL in 2000 as a linesman and when the league switched to a two-referee system, O’Rourke became a referee. After four seasons as an AHL ref and three more Calder Cup finals he joined the ranks of the NHL’s full-time referees in 2005. He reffed his 1,000th game in December 2017 and heading into this year’s postseason he’d already whistled 128 playoff games.
“He finished off in the East Coast and the next year he went from fighting to breaking up fights and he did that for two seasons,” said Steve.
The O’Rourke brothers were born in Calgary and moved to Summerland when they were still young kids. Steve Kozari, one of the other NHL referees working this year’s final, grew up in nearby Penticton. Dan now lives in Atlanta, Ga., with his wife and two kids and uses that as a hub to get to games in virtually every NHL city in Canada and the U.S. His oldest kid, 23-year-old Austin, plays NCAA hockey and is about to begin his third season at UMass-Lowell.
“Referees don’t have home games, they go all over,” said Steve. “Linesmen will work kind of up and down (in regions) but referees, they’ll give him two weeks on the west coast and then home.
“Those guys are like us (as coaches of the Cougars) and they might get three or four games a week, but their days off are days off. Us, we come in and try to solve the next problem. What’s wrong with our first-line centre or what’s wrong with the power play? When he comes home he’s got family time and he works out to stay in shape and he gets to golf down in Atlanta all year round. Us, we’re in the salt mine the next day after a game.”
Dan’s salary is about $500,000 in American dollars, not including playoff bonuses, and Steve says more players should consider becoming officials as a profession if they don’t make it as players.
“The NHL is looking for guys who played and they’re soliciting CHL players, NCAA players, to come and get involved because they understand the game and normally can get involved at a high level,” he said.
“Kids starting out know the NHL (as a career path), but they don’t know what a referee or a linesman makes. The kids who ref and line games take all the abuse early on but they don’t know what that end carrot could be. That’s a pretty good livelihood, and you’re in the rinks with the best players.”
Dan is one of the stanby referees for Game 6 today (5 p.m. start) and will likely be called in to ref Game 7, if needed, on Wednesday. THe Lightning lead the series 3-2.
LOOSE PUCKS: Steve’s 21-year-old son Ethan, a former Cougar/Spruce King centre who played last year in the BCHL for the Coquitlam Express, left Prince George on Friday for Halifax, where he’s about to begin his college career at Dalhousie University. O’Rourke’s season ended abruptly in March when the BCHL canceled the rest of the playoffs due to the pandemic. The Express were the regular season champions and after sweeping Langley in their opening-round series they were one of the favorites to win the Fred Page Cup.