The Dallas Stars were in Los Angeles to play the Kings at the Great Western Forum. McCreary let a goal stand on a delayed penalty that shouldn't have counted, and coach Larry Robinson lost it.
"I look over at the L.A. bench and Larry's standing on the bench giving me the choke sign," McCreary recalled. "So now I throw him out of the game and everything just snowballed from there."
One problem: McCreary knew he was wrong. Despite 14 years in the league, his mental lapse cost the Kings a goal in a loss and Robinson $5,000.
"I should've known better," McCreary said in a recent phone interview. "I learned to keep my whistle on my fingers and not in my mouth when you're working with two senior linesmen."
That's one of a handful of lessons McCreary learned during a career that included 1,737 regular-season games, a record 297 in the playoffs including another record 44 in the Stanley Cup final and three Olympic Games. On Monday he'll be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2014 with Peter Forsberg, Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, Rob Blake and the late Pat Burns.
McCreary, who was elected in his first year of eligibility, will be the 16th official in the Hall of Fame.
"I think it has a lot to do with his performance on the ice as an official in the game over a real long period of time," NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom said in a phone interview. "I think in the modern era, Bill McCreary is synonymous with excellence in officiating. He's just one of the greatest officials that the NHL's ever had."
The Guelph, Ont., native said he refereed with two words in mind: fair and safe. They got him to seven straight Stanley Cup final series and eight overall under four different NHL management teams.
"The consistency part, that's what an official strives to be is consistent within himself," said McCreary, who's now a spokesman for Crown Royal's "Make the Right Call" campaign to promote responsible drinking and an off-ice officiating manager. "So I think that shows that that accomplishment was achieved."
Referees are often the first people on the ice to get booed before a game and receive the brunt of criticism from players, coaches and wrath from fans. Somehow, McCreary earned respect all around.
Walkom, who has worked on and off the ice with McCreary, said that has to do with confidence and trust. Blake cited communication skills.
"You could have legitimate conversations with (McCreary)," Blake said in a phone interview. "There's some refs, even in a heated moment, you're never going to be able to have a conversation with a guy. But Billy was good that way.
"He was always willing to talk, it didn't matter if you were first year in the league or 15th year in the league. But he was fair. He'd give you the call and he explained about why you got the call. That's kind of all players really ask for."
Prior to McCreary's final NHL game in April 2011, then-Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau enjoyed the mutual respect the longtime referee cultivated.
"(He) didn't call all the piddly stuff unless it was that kind of game, or he'd let stuff go and then he'd come over and he'd communicate with the coaches," Boudreau said. "If anybody wants to be a good ref, all you have to do is learn how to communicate properly with the coaches and it makes it so much easier on everybody concerned."
McCreary transcended eras, working a little over half his NHL career under the one-referee system and then the rest of it working with another on the ice at the same time. The 58-year-old conceded it changed his job immensely.
"(As one referee) it was your game, you were in charge of it and you may have been bad one night but at least you were bad in both ends of the ice," he said. "At least you were consistently bad or you were consistently good or you were just consistent. When you went two referees, what you were trying to do is take two judgments of two men and get it as close as possible into one."
Unlike baseball umpires, NHL officials don't travel in crews, which means McCreary worked with many other referees. Walkom called him a great role model to younger officials, and other colleagues glowed about how McCreary didn't bigfoot anyone because of his experience.
"He exuded confidence and left no doubt about who was in charge of the game," referee Dave Jackson said. "He also helped mentor every young referee he worked with. You never went on the ice with Billy feeling subordinate, he built you up and made you feel like an equal partner."
Early in his career and in important games, McCreary preferred to work alongside senior referees and linesmen because the respect between players and coaches and officials was built in. Later on, he relished the mentor role.
"It kept me young, it was fun, it was refreshing being with them all day long," McCreary said. "It made me be a better person going to the gym every day with them. It also allowed me to mentor them a little bit and try to teach them things that had been handed down to me over time."
McCreary first worked the Stanley Cup final in 1994, so that remains a pleasant memory. He also did the 1991 Canada Cup, Wayne Gretzky's final game and the 1998, 2002 and 2010 Olympics.
Some seventh games in the Cup final and the gold-medal matchups between Canada and the U.S. in 2002 and 2010 are some of his most treasured accomplishments.
"It was the first time that a Canadian referee was allowed to referee the United States against Canada in a championship event," McCreary said. "That was a big honour."
That didn't happen by accident. Walkom praised McCreary's work ethic in games, no matter how big.
Off the ice, it remained the same. During the 2004-05 lockout, McCreary picked up a job from a Guelph neighbour delivering, installing and building kitchen cabinets.
"When the raw material comes in the back door and you see the finished product go out sort of the front door, it's a rewarding experience to know you were a part of it," McCreary said.
McCreary joins fellow member of the Guelph Hockey Referees Association Ray Scapinello in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
McCreary learned from him and the late John McCauley how to officiate at a high level for a long period of time.
"I think something I learned was to get respect you have to give respect," McCreary said. "You always don't have to put your arm in the air and call a penalty, but you certainly have to let people know maybe why you didn't or maybe the next time why you will. It's a skill that, it's hard to develop because it's about gaining respect with the players and coaches and managers and it takes a lot of hard work. But I think it's very vital to be successful."
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