After more than 40 years of calling the game he loves, 64-year-old veteran hockey referee Jerry Kurka does not see himself quitting any time soon.
The longtime official has overseen thousands of hockey games in that span, calling everything from minor hockey to old-timers to senior men’s games both in the Lower Mainland and in Prince Rupert. He said it’s his love of the game that keeps him going all these years.
“I had good experience growing up playing hockey,” he said. “I had good coaches, and I just want to put back into the game what I received from the game itself.”
Born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Kurka was introduced to hockey when he was eight years old. He played through the minor levels, eventually receiving a scholarship to play at the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. It was during these early playing years that Kurka began to officiate games. He said he called his first game when he was 15, and continued to do so as he moved through the Prairies and to the Northwest.
“Most of the stuff I did back then was house league hockey on outdoor rinks,” he said. “The kids were young ranging from age seven and up.”
Kurka said that for the most part, there was not anything particularly memorable about his early years of officiating, although he would have a run in with overzealous fans heckling from time-to-time. He said that once while reffing a game in Saskatoon, a gentleman sitting with a cup of coffee along the boards next to the ice was loudly heckling him.
“He was next to the blue line,” Kurka said. “This was back when there wasn’t any glass.”
The man continued to yell at him, so Kurka said he came across the blue line to wave off an offside “accidentally” knocking the man’s coffee all over him.
“Needless to say he was quiet after that and went up several rows,” Kurka said.
In the early ’70s, Kurka moved to Vancouver, following some Saskatoon friends who had gone before him. He lived there for a year before moving north to Stewart for work. While living in Stewart, he met his wife and moved back to Vancouver to begin an apprenticeship as a power dispatcher. He first moved to Rupert in 1976 to complete a placement for BC Hydro. By the early ’80s B.C. had officially become home for Kurka.
“I moved up north to work for a bit, met my wife and we just kinda took it from there,” he said.
Kurka played on Prince Rupert’s old Kings’s teams in the city while officiating minor hockey games. After the Kings folded in the early ’80s, Kurka spent more time officiating, becoming a staple on the ice at all levels of play. He estimates that he has averaged more than 100 games per year during his time in Prince Rupert, and on occasion becoming a casualty to his passion. Once while officiating a Rampage game, Kurka said he was caught between two players who were lining up to hit one another.
“I saw the guy coming out with the puck, I saw the other guy lining him up, and the triangulation was right where I was and I couldn’t get out of the way,” he said with a laugh. “It didn’t matter which way you go, you were going to get it.”
Kurka said it took him a few minutes to get up from the hit, and he was afraid that he may have dislocated his shoulder. However, a trip to the medical clinic after the game revealed that he had only suffered a few bruises.
Kurka said this will be his last season officiating games in Prince Rupert. He plans to retire this summer from his position at Saanich Plumbing and will move to the Lower Mainland. While he is looking forward to slowing down, he said he has enjoyed his time on the ice in Prince Rupert, especially watching the development of hockey talent in the town over the years.
“Just watching the kids that you coach as they progress,” he said. “Watching kids in general enjoying the game.”
While his location may change, Kurka said he will continue to do what he has always loved to do. He plans to get whatever qualifications are necessary to referee games in his next home, and will do it until he can’t do it anymore. For now, stopping is not an option.
“I’ll put in my time wherever they need me,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy, I don’t see that happening.”