The puck may or may not have crossed too many lines.
There was no mistaking, though, that Mike Emanatian had crossed one.
He was all of 19 years old officiating his first NCAA Division I hockey game in 1985, across the Hudson River from his native Watervliet at Houston Field House in Troy for RPI-Harvard. The Crimson head coach turned crimson over an icing call, and Emanatian’s ears were soon bombarded with a certain word that rhymes with “puck.”
Emanatian returned a salvo of his own, not knowing — or caring — to whom who he was directing it.
That would be Bill Cleary, who won 324 games, multiple ECAC Hockey championships and the 1989 national championship as the Harvard coach, who played on the U.S. Olympic team twice, in 1956 and 1960, when he was the leading scorer on the team that won the gold medal at Squaw Valley, who would go on to be inducted into multiple hockey halls of fame …
That Bill Cleary.
“He came unglued,” Emanatian said with a laugh on Monday. “By unglued, I mean spit coming out of his mouth. I would’ve been 19, and this guy was a legend, and apparently no one had ever spoken to him like that.”
Houston Field House went dead silent after Emanatian mouthed off back at Cleary, and the referee leading the crew that night took him aside later. “He said, ‘Listen, buddy, Mike, you can’t talk to these guys like that. They go to their athletic directors … and, plain and simple, it’s just not good sportsmanship.
“‘This is one of the things you’re going to have to learn.'”
He did. At the time, Emanatian was a candidate to be hired by the American Hockey League, but needed experience, and got it in the college ranks before joining the AHL in 1986. He got so good at his job that the AHL gave him the Michael Condon Memorial Award for outstanding officiating in 2014-15.
He also learned this: His bad back can’t take it anymore. So when Emanatian steps on his beloved ice for the Mayor’s Cup between the Union and RPI men on Saturday at the Times Union Center, he’ll do so as a professional hockey official for the last time. The 53-year-old, who lives in Troy with his wife Robin, will bring over three decades of experience into that game, and will bring a treasure chest of memories out of it.
“Sad, I guess, would be the right word, for sure, but — this is very important to me — I get to do a game in my home area,” Emanatian said. “So I couldn’t write it any better. It’s a great matchup, no matter how the teams are playing. Union and RPI, that’s Michigan-Notre Dame, whatever you want to call it. So I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.”
Emanatian worked his final AHL game last week in Springfield, Mass., and got a hearty sendoff in Glens Falls on Saturday before an Adirondack Thunder ECHL game at Cool Insuring Arena.
He has worked five NCAA national championships (four in Division I) and has been selected for four AHL Calder Cup finals and one AHL All-Star Classic, in 2008. Emanatian estimates that he’s called about 500 games at Cool Insuring, formerly the Glens Falls Civic Center.
ECAC Hockey director of officials Peter Feola will make a short presentation after warmups for the 6 p.m. men’s game at the Mayor’s Cup. That game will be preceded by the women’s game at 3.
“He absolutely loves the game,” RPI men’s head coach Dave Smith said. “It comes across with the opening puck drop, he comes over and says, ‘Hey, boys, have a good one.’ His passion for the game is felt through and through. He’s been a good man for the game of hockey. We miss guys like that. He’s just a burst of energy, and that’s nice to see.”
“I’ve always respected Mike and how he’s gone about lining the games,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said. “He’s always been professional, which I think is the biggest compliment I can give Mike. He’s always been a good guy, and we’ll miss him.”
“He’s done quite a few NCAA tournaments, and since he came back to the ECAC about 12 years ago, he’s been a mentor for a lot of guys who are going on to the NCAAs,” Feola said. “Just the passion for the game of hockey and the willingness to go anywhere and do any game. He keeps himself in great shape, and it’s been a part of his life for a long time.”
The same ailment that is forcing Emanatian out of officiating also got him into it in the first place.
Back surgeries ended his playing days when he was a teenager, and it killed him not to be on the ice. One day his coach in the juniors, John Gilchrist, told him he was picking Emanatian up and taking him to the rink at Frear Park one Saturday morning.
And wear black pants.
He refereed a house league game, and for the next two years worked well over 200 games at the mite and squirt levels without receiving a dime.
“I will never, ever forget [that first game at Frear],” Emanatian said. “I said, ‘Well, what do I do?’ He said, ‘Well, you know what everything is, you’ve played hockey your whole life. If you see a trip, call a trip. If you see a punch in the head, call it.’
“I remember seeing a kid trip another kid, and I’m like, ‘There it is.’
“So I put my arm up. Everybody stopped, and it was like, OK, what do you have? So I pointed to the player, and I’m sure I didn’t do that right, and I signaled a trip, which I’m sure was terrible. And the kid went to the box and nobody yelled or said a word, and I think it was that moment I just fell in love with it. I thought, ‘Wow, I get to come out here, skate, in the game I love,’ and it was really that very first penalty I called in the first game I did that I kind of got hooked on it.”
Emanatian kept himself in shape and hustled, calling youth games in Clifton Park, Schenectady, Troy and Albany, and before long he was invited to USA Hockey officials camp in Lake Placid that also served as a tryout for the AHL.
He didn’t make the cut the first year, but stayed busy, got some college games, and was hired by the AHL in 1986.
With more pro experience came more opportunity. He has called Division I national championship games in Lake Placid, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Madison, Wisconsin, and St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Championship hockey at any level raises everyone’s level, whether it’s your playing ability, your coaching ability, your officiating ability,” he said. “When you get your crack at a national championship game, it’s probably one of the most difficult things you can ever do, because you don’t get a second chance.
“If you screw it up, it’s one game. It’s not a tournament, it’s not a best-of-anything series, it’s one game, so if you make a mistake in that game, that costs somebody a national championship, you’re over. You’re done.”
The two players he remembers most vividly from the AHL are Sam St. Laurent, the MVP goalie on the Adirondack Red Wings’ 1989 Calder Cup championship team, and Tie Domi, who didn’t spend much time in the AHL, but made a lasting impression on Emanatian anyway.
During a Red Wings game at the Civic Center for which St. Laurent didn’t dress, he served as Emanatian’s personal medical coach while Emanatian was getting 57 stitches in his head from getting whacked with a stick, in the days before helmets were mandatory.
Given the option to go to the hospital or be stitched up in the trainer’s room, Emanatian chose the latter, so he could get back in the game.
“Why are you even giving me this option? Just do it,” he said. “So he goes, ‘OK, fine,’ he walks away, and he was right back and said, ‘OK, boys.’ Sammy just happened to be in the room. I don’t know how many guys had to hold my head. The reason the doctor gave me the choice: He had no novocaine. I ended up getting 57 stitches in the head, no novocaine. And it was miserable.
“So Sammy was the one over me, talking me through it.”
Domi was memorable for a decidedly different reason.
He played 57 AHL games with the Newmarket Saints in 1989-90 and 25 more with the Binghamton Rangers in 1990-91 before going on to set the NHL record for number of fights (333). It may be a stretch to say that Emanatian saw Domi fight 25 times, “but that’s what it seems like.”
“That man impressed me from Day 1,” Emanatian said. “Just his physical presence on the ice changed everything you did as an official, because you can’t keep your eyes on one player, but you had to keep your eyes on him.
“And when the whistle blew, you had to know where he was at all times. And when he did what you expected him to do — I never saw anybody better or tougher. And I always used the term pound-for-pound, but he might be the toughest guy I’ve physically ever seen or tried to engage with.”
Even without having to break up Tie Domi fights anymore, Emanatian has such a difficult time getting his back to recover from games now that he was left with no choice but to retire a few years prematurely.
He’ll continue to work at his other passion, painting cars for Schodack Auto Body. But the whistle will be hanging on a hook for good after Saturday’s Mayor’s Cup.
“First and foremost: I’ll miss being on the ice,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I’m going to have to find a way to get on the ice. I love to skate. I can’t do it anymore. Hey, my parents sacrificed everything my whole life for me to be able to play hockey. Those first few years [as a ref], I was skating for free. I was on the ice, I didn’t have to pay admission, my parents didn’t have to sacrifice … I was skating. That was the main draw.
“The second thing was, there’s just something about it. It’s like playing a sport, it’s like being passionate about reading. If it’s in you, it’s in you, and apparently it was in me. I just wanted to do it. All I thought about doing was refereeing a hockey game.
“Plain and simple.”