For more than forty years, there have been two constants in the life of Valley East resident Dan Draper: his involvement and on-going support of the military, and his passion for officiating hockey.
Come the fall of 2017, one will take a backseat to his family, a decision spurred on, in part, by the September and December arrival of his two latest grandchildren.
Draper will be stepping back both from his role as an often-seen referee, as well as the referee-in-chief for the Valley East Minor Hockey Association, a time-consuming undertaking that he manned with commitment for the past several years.
Born and raised in Azilda, Draper did not flow directly into his role donning the stripes via the conventional path as a former player. In fact, his primary athletic involvement was unusual, to say the least, for someone still enjoying their teenage years.
"I ran marathons in high school," he said. "I ran my first one in grade nine. We had a good running club, I started very early, and also did a lot of track." While the passion for distances would ultimately lead him to complete the 26 mile jaunt no less than three times in Toronto, four times in Halifax, and once in Boston, representing the military, Draper still found himself naturally attracted to the ice.
"I loved the sport (hockey), even though I wasn't playing," he said. In fact, in many ways, his love of military and officiating would often march side by side. The genesis for both came well before his 20th birthday.
"I joined the military at 18, and started refereeing in Petawawa," Draper recalled. "My great grandfather was in World War I, my grandfather was in World War II, and three of my uncles served in the military. We all stayed in the same barracks, some years apart, in Petawawa. It was pretty special for me."
In fact, Draper would suggest that it really isn't all that difficult to find common ground in both primary aspects of his life. "Military teaches you discipline," he said. "When you are on the ice, it makes a big difference."
Still, like most new officials, there are early moments of doubt. "Dealing with the parents, even at that time, was a big thing. It was a culture shock, at first, when I started officiating. I didn't think I was going to last a year."
Thankfully, there were plenty of offsetting moments, the special times in the game that helps to make it all worthwhile. "The kids that were playing the game, and some of the comments you would get from the young kids, it was great," he suggested.
Because of his involvement with the armed forces, Draper enjoyed some opportunities that were not necessarily afforded to the masses. "Everywhere I went, I was involved with minor hockey, over and above my military officiating," Draper stated.
"But I got to do national championships in the military. I got to travel to the States, to Europe, for big military tournaments. It was relatively easy hockey to do, not a lot of penalties. For a military hockey game, it's all controlled by the military."
"If something ever happened on the ice, you try and take care of it as an official," Draper added. "But you knew that the player could be suspended by the military as well." Over the years, much like the athletes on the ice, he would see his game evolve, learning his personal keys to success.
"Communication, for me, is big," he said. "Communicating with the players, communicating with the coaching staffs. You get more response, and a better response, with that approach. And when I first started, you're always ripping down the ice to get there as fast as you can."
"With the experience, you learn to lay back a little bit and you still get to the play, just a little easier than before." While Draper's on-ice presence will be missed, it was the critical role wherein he thrived as a referee in chief that might be the toughest hole to fill.
"I think my organizational skills really helped," he said. "In the military, I used to look after our exercises for our troops. It does cross over." And though his primary focus, in the years ahead, might well lie in moving his grandchildren's hockey affiliation from their current ill-informed love of all things Maple Leaf, over to his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins, Draper is not leaving with some regrets.
"Being on the ice with the guys was always a lot of fun," he said. "I enjoyed it. I'm going to miss them."