Cool, calm and commanding are three ways to describe local ball hockey referee Darsh Grewall.
Those traits have done him well in his work in stripes.
Occasionally on the perimeter and often in the middle of it all making sure the game runs smoothly, Grewall carries a whistle and the authority to stop players in their tracks when they cross the line.
A referee in ball hockey’s highest circles has to be able to stand the heat.
And that he has, beginning in 1984 as a rookie official.
“I definitely was quite nervous, especially being a visible minority,” recalls Grewall. “A turban-wearing Sikh, going into Canada’s game refereeing almost all Caucasian players. That was a tough one for a few years. For the most part, they did (respect me). No insults that I can recall, that I heard.
“Hockey players generally are very good that way.”
A Burnaby businessman who resided in the city for a couple of decades before moving back to his hometown of New Westminster, Grewall enjoyed playing sports, but he wasn’t itching to join the officiating crowd. It just happened – a cousin called and kept pleading for him to take on the role. While Grewall hung up the first time, he eventually acceded. It didn’t take long before he felt comfortable in stripes.
He learned on the fly, and, as the ball hockey game evolved, he kept up with the times.
“The biggest challenge is with the speed, being able to keep up with these high-level athletes,” he says. “It’s a two-man system, as opposed to the three- or four-man system like ice hockey is. You have to be fast, you have to be able to keep up. Sometimes you’re doing two games back-to-back and it takes a toll.”
Fleet of foot and a firm arbitrator, Grewall survived the early years thanks to a thick skin.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to be, whether you call it smart enough or agile enough to be in the right spot and not the wrong spot.”
Last month the right spot proved to be in Newfoundland, where at the national masters championship tournament, Grewall was officially inducted into the Canadian Ball Hockey Hall of Fame – the first referee to receive such an honour.
It came a few weeks after he was honoured locally before a youth national championship game in Burnaby, where 30 members of his family and numerous fellow on-floor officials were in attendance to see Canada Ball Hockey’s referee-in-chief feted.
The whole idea of receiving the honour caught him by surprise.
“Well, I was at the airport in Edmonton when I first got the phone call and I basically had to pull over, I was so overwhelmed,” recalls Grewall on hearing the news. “It was overwhelming. … They have a hall of fame for the CBHA and I was the first-ever referee to be inducted into it.”
The idea back in 1984 that his volunteering to officiate on the old Arenex floor would lead to national and international championships would have been met with a laugh. But that’s exactly where the game – and his dedication to it – has taken him.
The family business at S&N Lighting on Imperial Street allowed him some leeway when it came to overseeing the game at its highest levels.
He’s done numerous provincial and national championships and counts his first world tournament – in 2005 in Pittsburgh – as his first international competition.
It led him to world championships as far away as Slovakia and as hot as Bermuda. Through the years, he has seen the game grow, and the calibre of play improve.
“My first two years of officiating just in B.C. there use to be full contact. Ball hockey, when it was first introduced, was a contact sport, so there was open floor hitting – nothing along the boards, though. That (open-floor hitting) was taken out in about 1997.
“That’s what led to a lot of the rough play. People were used to playing the body and then they couldn’t, so there was frustration and all that. … I remember going to the ground, wrestling the players down on a few occasions, but (I have) never been hit.”
The slamming of sticks and colourful language may be the primary method of complaint, but he learned quickly to shake it off.
“That happens to the best of us. Pretty much you call that gamesmanship, and that’s a way the players or coaches try to get an edge. You can call it intimidation if you want,” Grewall says.
The president of the B.C. Ball Hockey Association says Grewall’s demeanor has proven time and again to be a great arbitrator.
“I have known Darsh for over 20 years – I used to play at a competitive level and he put me in the penalty box on a few occasions,” Robert Moxness replied in an email. “(He’s) a very modest man who does not like to take credit for his success. ... His calm and approachable demeanor allows for some great problem-solving discussions.”
International championships have taken Grewall to such far-away hockey hot spots as Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and even places where hockey doesn’t seem natural – like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
Some of those contests, like reffing a major world championship semifinal showdown between archrivals the Czech Republic and Slovakia before a crowd of 7,000 loud Czech fans, are among Grewall’s career highlights.
“We got a knock on the referee door – ‘The warmup is about to start if you’re ready to go.’ They basically wouldn’t let us out (earlier) because they were waiting for the armed guards to walk us out to the floor,” he recalls.
“At the end of each period they’d be there waiting to walk us back to the change room. Luckily the games stayed close so they weren’t necessary.”
Trying to keep up with the pace outdoors at the Bermuda-hosted world masters championships last October under tropical conditions was an extreme test.
“The tournament that we did, the temperature on the floor was around 40 degrees. It was roasting in the middle of the day. You’d do one, maybe two games and you were pretty much done for the day,” he recalls.
It was his final international championship, and since then he’s decided to stay closer to home when it comes to refereeing.
He will still don the uniform at provincial championships, but his main focus is his role as the CBHA’s national referee-in-chief, helping groom the next generation of referees on the floor.
“I’ve just slowed down a little bit and it’s little tougher to keep up with the younger guys, who are going 90-miles-an-hour,” he says. “But it becomes a passion.”