Steve Kozari of Penticton has reached the pinnacle of hockey officiating.
The 40-year-old is realizing his dream of working the Stanley Cup finals as part of the crew picked for the New York Rangers-Los Angeles Kings series. Kozari worked Game 1 Wednesday and is scheduled for Game 3. Games 5 to 7 not assigned yet.
“It’s an honour for my family and myself to be awarded the Stanley Cup finals,” said Kozari, who said this would never happen without the support of his wife Diana, of 17 years, and their sons Jackson, 15, and Nate, 13.
Kozari is joined by Wes McCauley, Dan O’Halloran and Brad Watson, while the linesman are Derek Amell, Scott Driscoll, Brad Kovachik and Shane Heyer of Summerland.
“This playoffs has been intense. It’s been great. The games have never been so close,” said Kozari, a 10-year NHL referee with 55 playoff games under his belt. “We’ve had multiple overtimes.”
While players expect to sustain bumps, bruises or major injuries, Kozari has also collected a few.
In the opening round between the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings, he broke his cheek bone when he was struck by a puck near the boards on a clearing attempt by Bruins defenceman Dougie Hamilton. He was looked after, then returned to finish the game.
In the second round between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, he went down three times, once landing on his shoulder and he also hitting his head on the ice.
Kozari, who officiated Penticton Panther games when he worked the BCHL circuit for five years, is healthy now, but joked it’s not over yet.
“Playoffs are the playoffs. It’s the best hockey of the year and it’s just so ramped up. Competitive atmosphere in the game.”
Officiating in the Stanley Cup Finals has been an end goal for Kozari after watching fellow officials Don Koharski, Bill McCreary and Kerry Fraser on TV.
After his stint in the BCHL, Kozari made the jump to the WHL for 10 years, then spent four in the AHL before reaching the NHL.
When things were going well in the WHL, he saw the opportunity to reach his dream.
“I knew it was a long road. It was a long road,” said Kozari, who operates an officiating school in Penticton. “You gotta pay your dues and travelling through the West Coast and western part of Canada to get there. It’s finally paid off. I have to take every bit of this in.”
As Kozari soaks in this experience, his wife and kids will be along for the ride.
“They are very excited,” said Kozari.
The family will be in New York for three days and plan to visit to Madison Square Gardens.
“They are going to get a chance to skate on the ice,” he said.
“They are excited about going to the game and being a part of it. That’s a huge thing.”