Over 1,700 regular season games, three Stanley Cup finals, one Olympics, one all-star game, and two outdoor classics: it's safe to say Battleford native Mark Wheler has seen his fair share of hockey up close as an NHL linesman.
Last week, Wheler officiated his final game in the NHL, deciding to hang up the skates after 26 years patrolling the lines.
"It's been a great run," Wheler, the youngest of seven siblings, said in a phone interview this week from his home in Calgary. "The time is right and I don't have any regrets at all."
Four of his brothers, his sister, his mom, his wife Barb, all three of his kids, plus plenty of friends were all present at the Scotiabank Saddledome on March 16 as he skated his last game in the same building he debuted in, way back on Oct. 10, 1992.
"I got to visit with everybody and it was a lot of fun," Wheler said. "I didn't know what to expect but it was a good wrap. To share it with those people that have supported you and been interested in your career all those years is pretty cool."
Wheler got to work his final game alongside referee Brad Watson, who he also worked with at the 1992 Memorial Cup in Seattle, which was his final year of junior.
Over a decade prior, Wheler began in the Saskatchewan Amateur Junior Hockey League as a 16-year-old, when the Battlefords North Stars were still called the Battleford Barons. After graduating high school, he moved to Saskatoon to pursue the Western Hockey League, and did so while attending the University of Saskatchewan to earn his business degree.
Wheler would work two Memorial Cups in his junior career, one in Saskatoon and then his final one in Seattle, before getting the call-up to the big leagues.
Although he doesn't remember specifics, his does recall his first ever NHL game in Calgary in 1992.
"I remember being there and working with two veteran guys and relying on my experience of working the Memorial Cup final, so you've been in a sitatuion where you have pressure," he said. "You just try to treat it like another game. It's funny because the media and the fans and everybody else in the game is trying to hype up every game. I remember feeling this when I worked the Stanley Cup Final. Everybody around you is just trying to hype it up and make it so exciting and larger than life... and as an official, all you're trying to do is keep it simple and remember that it's just another game."
His first Stanley Cup Final came in 2001, when the New Jersey Devils met the Colorado Avalanche.
But it was his final Cup Finals appearance, in 2004, that stood out as his career highlight. That's because it went to a game seven.
"In officiating, in my mind, game seven of the final is the biggest game you can reach," he said. "I remember sitting before the game thinking, 'Wow, this is the game you dream about doing when you're 13 years old working a peewee game on Saturday afternoon.' There's no other game in town. One way or another, the Stanley Cup is getting presented to one of the teams at the end and just everything is on the line."
Wheler originally planned to retire from officiating one year ago, but was given an option for another year and took that last January. At the time, he knew the game was getting too fast for him.
"To get to this level, you have to have very high expectations of yourself," he said. "I was at the point where physically, and then it leads to mentally, I had to grind as hard as I could, which was hard to do night after night after night, just to get to the lowest level of what I expect of myself. And I didn't want to hang around when I can't do the job the way I want to."
"When one of your feelings in your last game was satisfaction but almost relief, then you know," he added.
Wheler spent much of his career on the road. This year, of the roughly 75 games he worked, just eight to 10 were at home in Calgary. Some weeks were also busier than others, with as many as five games a week in some instances and as few as one a week in others.
Now, he'll have plenty of time to be with family, which will also include coming back to Battleford a little bit more often.
"My mom and a couple of my family members are close to there and my wife's parents live there so we'll do so more visiting," he said. "Going to play some golf at the beautiful North Battleford Golf and Country Club over the summer and look forward to that."
On Twitter: @NathanKanter11
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