Darren Gibbs remembers as a youngster visiting his Uncle Barry at work.
“When you are six or seven it is cool to go watch your uncle work…especially getting to go to all of the different cities,” recalls Darren of the trips out of Fort McMurray, Alberta during the 1970s’ “It was also great to go into the different locker rooms and meet the players.”
Darren’s uncle, Barry Gibbs, just happened to be an all-star defenseman in the National Hockey League where he played from 1967 – 1980 after being selected No. 1 overall by the Boston Bruins in the 1966 NHL Amateur Draft.
It was during that same draft year that Darren was born, relocating a short time later with his family to Fort McMurray.
Add to the hockey family tree that Darren’s father John Gibbs was recognized and respected as the No. 1 hockey official in the city for years and one can envision the path that led to Darren’s future employment in the NHL.
Since 1997 he has been a linesman working 75 regular season games annually along with exhibition and playoff games.
It is in respect of his lengthy career in the big leagues, that Darren will become the first official to be inducted into the Woof Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
“You are kind of in shock when you get a phone call like this telling you about your induction,” said Darren, in a telephone interview from his home in Dallas, Texas “I probably won’t understand the magnitude of it until I am there. It will be an amazing honour as I always tell people that Fort McMurray is my home away from home.”
Old-timers in the community will recall back to the 1970s’ when Darren, only 10 years-of-age, started officiating local youth hockey and later senior hockey.
“I was referring the little kids, kids my age,” recalled Darren of the times he spent down at Townsite Arena – which is now the parking lot in front of Keyano Theatre. “Then they would have times when a (adult) would not show up to officiate and they would call me for games with the older players or adults.”
Darren said watching his dad officiate was a great learning tool.
“Instead of watching the players I would watch what my dad was doing and from that I learned what off side was and what icing was.”
Darren also found time to play the sport wearing the Junior B colours of the Fort McMurray Blackhawks and Fort McMurray Voyageurs in the early 1980s.
“It was a lot of hockey for me back then,” recalled the Fort McMurray Composite High School graduate. “I was playing plus I was officiating…sometimes three games in a row be it gentlemen’s hockey or Junior B or Junior A. I was on the ice all of the time from 16 to 22 years of age.”
He even officiated games in which his Uncle Barry played, be it as a player/coach with the Suncor Blades or coach of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
It was during his last years officiating in the Alberta Junior Hockey League that the realization came that there might be a possible career on the ice for him while wearing the zebra stripes.
“Guys (officials) would come up from Edmonton and say, “You should come down here and work more games in Edmonton.”
In 1993 Darren made the permanent move south down Highway #63 and was picked up by the Western Hockey League.
In his first year, he worked the WHL playoffs, “usually unheard of for a rookie official,” said Darren and the following year the Memorial Cup finals.
“Once you are in the WHL you are on the radar for the NHL,” recalled Darren, who was 28 years-of-age at the time. “I knew they were hiring some guys at 30 or 31 but I thought maybe they would hire someone younger than me in order to get more years from them.”
During his four-year tenure in the WHL he also worked at Fountain Tire in Calgary “busted tires man, fixing flats and changing tires, getting my hands dirty…paying the bills.”
In 1997, October 1 to be more precise, Darren skated onto the ice in San Jose as the Sharks hosted the Edmonton Oilers. He was now an NHL linesman.
“It was nerve wracking to say the least,” recalled Darren. “I will remember it for the rest of my life. My heart rate was at 160 the whole night.”
During his early part of his career, Darren, like all rookies, had to pay his dues.
“You try to run a faceoff and you are telling a Mark Messier or a Mario Lemieux where to put their sticks and they say ‘No.” They have read your bio and know that you are a rookie and they are testing you.”
Like any career, Darren says “you start becoming more comfortable on the ice the further you are in your career and with the knowledge of the rules and with what building you are in. After a while the players become more comfortable too with the role you are in.
“The first five years they are all over you but after you get past 10 years or 15 years they start to leave you alone…they begin to trust you.”
With a salary in the six figure range, Darren admits that the constant travel wears down many sports professionals.
“I probably spend 160 nights a year in a hotel and so yes the travel and the flights get to you sometimes plus we have to schlep our own gear. We (NHL officials) are a close knit group and of all of them, I can count on one hand the guys that I probably don’t get along with.”
Darren has had his fair share of errant pucks and errant players punches knocking him off of his skates and at age 45 says he has to remain in top physical shape.
“It is paramount to stay healthy. I take no time away from the gym as it is too hard, at this age, to stay at the level that our fitness test requires. It is a battle to stay in the shape the NHL expects of us.”
Darren is approaching 1,000 NHL games officiated and plans to remain behind the whistle in order to reach game 1,500 which is a NHL milestone.
‘‘That is where the league will present you with NHL recognition. It is a cool thing as they bring your family in for it.”
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