Back in 1972, 14-year-old Harvey Bolton stepped onto the ice for his first game as a hockey referee. Fifty years later, Bolton is still working as an official and introducing more people to the stripes.
This hockey season marks five decades of officiating hockey games and tournaments for Bolton. Now serving only in an off-ice capacity, Bolton has seen it all on rinks throughout the north and Manitoba.
Over that time, Bolton has refereed more games than he can count - he reckons the number is somewhere in the two-to-three thousand range. The longtime referee-in-chief of the Norman Regional Minor Hockey Association gained that title in 1980s and maintains it to this day - in fact, he was the lead off-ice official for a youth tournament and a junior B game in OCN earlier this month.
“Usually it’s a thousand kilometres or so a year on the vehicle doing this kind of stuff,” he said.
“It is what I enjoy - working with the younger kids, still enjoying supervising or mentoring junior games. Working with the kids is kind of what keeps me going.”
Bolton started out blowing the whistle for the “Tom Thumb rink” at the Whitney Forum - a smaller rink located in the building’s basement. The players were nine- and 10-year-olds - those same players are now nearing retirement age.
Back in the days of line brawls and sucker punches, Bolton was one of the town’s main ice sheriffs, taking after his father, a former Bomber-turned-official who helped inspire him to wear the stripes.
“When I was first reffing, age 15 or 16 at the time, I was reffing at the Forum and at that time, the referees for the Western League would fly in Saturday morning to do the Saturday night game and fly back out,” Bolton recalled.
“I was on the ice doing a game and when it was over, a fellow came into the referee room - the tractor room behind the skate sharpening booth - and brought me one of Mrs. Hutton’s paper cup Pepsis and a chocolate bar. He came in and said, ‘I just came over here because it’s my first time in Flin Flon and my first time in the Western League. I just wanted to see.’ That referee was [future NHL reffing legend] Kerry Fraser.”
Continuing on through his teenage years, the Flin Flon native kept officiating games after graduating and moving away, reffing games in Dauphin and later in Thompson. Bolton would stay there through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, becoming Thompson’s referee-in-chief in 1977.
Bolton moved back to his hometown in 1982 and would work SJHL playoff games, ANAVET Cups, MJHL final games and others. Later on, Bolton got more involved with off-ice officiating - observing other referees and linesmen and holding referee clinics while still travelling hither and yon to officiate games throughout the north. Bolton was on the Hockey Manitoba provincial development committee and was involved with supervising officials on different assignments.
For about the last 20 years, Bolton has spent most of his time in off-ice roles, usually only stepping on the sheet to lead clinics. In that time, Bolton was able to attend (and at times, organize) top-level referee clinics and international events. Bolton was an officiating supervisor for the 2002 World U-17 Hockey Challenge in southern Manitoba, which included future NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin and Zach Parise. Referees Bolton has trained and overseen have gone on to have long NHL careers.
“I haven't given anything up by being off the ice - I've actually had other opportunities that have been pretty exciting,” said Bolton.
Even without stepping on the ice often these days, Bolton said that the urge to go ref a game has tempered with time, adding his main role now is to teach and, at times, protect young refs.
“You know what? I find this so rewarding. We need the guy to be in the room when, in a minor hockey tournament, somebody is upset and they want to go to the referee, I can get in there and I can say, ‘Hey, tell me what the issue is.' I'll go talk to the official, be that buffer and hopefully make it better for everybody. I think it’s an important job and we need more,” he said.
Running youth officiating clinics and encouraging future officials has been of utmost importance for Bolton over the years.
“For the kids, you're there as a mentor, you're there to maybe correct some mistakes, but give them the confidence to move on,” he said.
“I think it’s an important thing to do, to have that next person or group of people there and ready to go when the time comes.”
After five decades on the job, Bolton has little intention of slowing down. He wants to continue officiating as long as he can. His family has helped keep him motivated to keep on blowing the whistle.
“My family are the ones who made the sacrifice - there were birthdays and everything where I was at the rink when I was not at home. My family deserves the credit, especially my wife for the last long number of years because she has encouraged and supported me to continue,” said Bolton.