Tim Nowak took a few moments last week to look back on his life and think about time. It seemed like yesterday when he was a teenager growing up in Cheektowaga and officiating spring house games in exchange for pro-shop credit, absolutely convinced he was the one stealing.
Nowak is 49 years old. He’s married with a 15-year-old daughter, the same age he was when seeds were planted for his career in hockey. All these years later, with the Sabres-Panthers matchup Saturday marking the lineman’s 1,500th NHL game, he has done the math while asking a simple question:
How did all that happen?
“I was thinking about when I first started refereeing, and my mom would drop me off at Holiday Twin Rinks,” Nowak said by telephone. “I didn’t even get paid in cash. I’d referee from 8 to 4, and then I would get picked up. And then all of a sudden, boom, here we are, 1,500 games. I don’t know. It just happened.”
It’s funny how life takes people in different directions, but his explanation actually made sense. It wasn’t like he sat down with guidance counselors at Maryvale High in 1985, scanned career choices – accountant, electrician, physician – and checked the box next to “NHL Zebra.”
Nowak’s dream was to become an NHL goaltender, which started when he showed up to the rink at 8 years old and somebody strapped the pads on him. John McFall taught him – along with thousands of others in Western New York – to skate, and Bob O’Shea shaped him into an official.
He played 11 seasons with the Buffalo Regals but failed to make the team at Erie Community College. He minded the nets for two seasons at Buffalo State and officiated when he had time, pocketing enough money to fill up the tank, stayed involved and cheered on the Sabres in Memorial Auditorium.
In the late 1980s, Nowak expected to make use of his body and mind as a New York state trooper. He was 6-foot-5, athletic and intelligent. He aced the exam with a 99 and was summoned to Albany for more testing. He failed the eye exam with flying colors, confirming what hockey fans long suspected:
Officials are blind.
“The guys I hang out with laugh at the story,” Nowak said. “I don’t know if it’s anything you want to print.”
Of course, I do. In fact, I just did.
Truth be told, Nowak was on his career path all along without knowing it was his career path. He officiated high school hockey before dabbling in the East Coast Hockey League, where players develop their skills while officials do the same. He spent a few years working his craft in the International Hockey League.
“I actually have a picture, dug deep in my stuff, of him on the ice with me as a Greensboro Monarch in the East Coast League days,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “I’ve been with him at every different level. He has seen me as a player and a coach. … We’ve had conversations. It didn’t, but it’s one that could lead to a beer.”
It sounds about right for a Buffalo guy.
Heaven knows how many miles Nowak logged in his car while trailblazing toward hockey outposts off the beaten path in Virginia and North Carolina. Or how many turns he missed while reading maps – kids, ask your parents – knowing it was worth the hassle. He was living while everybody else was going through life.
And there was a difference.
Nowak found beauty in his unconventional lifestyle and the game he loved while 9-to-5ers plodded through the week and thanked God when it was Friday. In 1993, he was promoted to the NHL as a rookie linesman making $22,000 when $22 would have been more than enough. It wasn’t the money that made him rich.
Sure, it was strange the first time he worked at the Aud and heard public-address announcer Milt Ellis, the local voice of God and a family friend, say his name over the speakers. The Bruins beat a Sabres team that included Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny, Dale Hawerchuk and an unproven goalie named Dominik Hasek.
“It was my third game, and I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” Nowak said. “I was sitting up in the blues and playing hockey in the hallways during the intermissions, trying to get back to my seat before the game, playing with those cups. And then coming there and actually working there, I was like, ‘Wow. This is really cool.’”
Of course, there were moments early in his career in which he paused while digesting the fact he was sharing the ice with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, among the best who ever played, and having an entirely different perspective than the star-struck teenager who had watched them from afar.
“It’s kind of humbling out there for the first couple of years,” he said. “I remember one of my first games, Patrick Roy played in. I was a goalie, and I’m watching him. I was like, ‘I have a game to watch here.’ You have to be part of the game, right? You can’t say, ‘I don’t belong here’ or you’ll have no confidence whatsoever. But it’s cool when you look back and think I was out there with Gretzky and Lemieux and Mark Messier and Mike Modano and Roy.”
All these years later, he still remembers working with referee Andy Van Hellemond and Randy Mitton and hearing them say they each had 1,500 games. Twenty-three years after his first game, Nowak can have the same conversation with rookie officials who are working the lines today.
Nowak’s resume also includes the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the 2003 NHL All-Star Game, the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He had the last game at the Aud and the first at Marine Midland Arena.
During his career, he spent more than 3,000 nights, or more than eight years, in hotels. The last time he checked, he had more than 2 million Marriott points despite bundles that were unloaded for his honeymoon in 1998, vacations and trips to his daughter’s out-of-town dance recitals.
Nowak is based in Easton, Md., allowing him to take direct flights to almost anywhere from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He no longer works for a pittance, either. Veteran linesmen these days make around $300,000 annually for 70-plus games per season. Not a bad gig for old No. 77.
His occupation took away his allegiance to the Buffalo Sabres, but he never lost his love for Buffalo. He was given the opportunity to work his milestone game anywhere and chose his hometown. Dozens of family members and friends will be in attendance, giving a Buffalo guy his first round of applause after 23 years.
Twenty three years, 1,500 games and counting.
How did it happen?
“The weeks go by, the months go by and all of a sudden the years go by,” Nowak said. “I think about how many I guys I worked with who have come and gone, or player-wise, or working at Holiday for five bucks a game or some men’s league. I was just having fun. I didn’t know any different. It just happened.”