As a waitress takes Garrett Rank’s lunch order at a popular downtown eatery, she compliments him on his attire: a three-piece suit with a bowtie.
Rank smiles appreciatively. In his job as an American Hockey League referee, words of praise are few and far between.
Rank, 27, of Elmira, Ontario, is in his first season with the AHL, and he has already been “called up” to the National Hockey League on a couple of occasions, to fill in for full-time officials on their scheduled breaks. When he worked an NHL game on Jan. 27 in Nashville, Tenn., between the hometown Predators and the Colorado Avalanche, Rank received his welcome-to-the-NHL moment from some of the 15,566 fans at Bridgestone Arena. After he made an unfavorable call against the home team, a derogatory chant reverberated for about 30 seconds.
Rank rolls with the punches. The ability to tune out potential distractions is something he has developed as a world-class mid-amateur golfer, and it serves him well on the ice.
“We liked how he carried himself as a referee,” NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom told TSN.com. “Some guys are naturally inclined to be refs and Garrett seems to have that quality. You can see he’s accustomed to pressure, how he’s handled it as a golfer. I don’t think missing a hooking call in a hockey game can be as difficult as coming back from missing a 3-foot putt in golf for a championship.”
When Rank arrived at the arena for the AHL game, linesman Todd Whittemore asked, “How’s the golf game?”
Pretty darned good, Rank might have answered. As of Feb. 11, he was No. 58 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™, making him the second-best mid-amateur (25 and older) player in the world. Only reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey (55) was higher.
In 2012, Rank finished runner-up to Nathan Smith in the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill. It was Smith’s record fourth title, and Rank defeated Harvey and 2013 USA Walker Cup competitor Todd White en route to the final.
Last year, Rank won the Canadian Mid-Amateur, earning him a spot in this summer’s RBC Canadian Open, a PGA Tour event, and was the runner-up at the prestigious Players Amateur. He also earned stroke-play medalist honors in the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and advanced to the Round of 32 in the 2014 U.S. Amateur.
Rank’s golf chops didn’t resonate with his fellow on-ice officials until they learned that he came within an eyelash of being invited to the 2013 Masters – Smith, the 2012 Mid-Amateur champion, earned his fourth Masters berth with the victory.
From an official’s standpoint, the game was uneventful. Providence won, 4-2, and Rank and fellow referee Geno Binda called only a handful of penalties. A couple of minor post-whistle skirmishes were quickly defused by the linesmen .
The lifestyle of Rank and his fellow full-time AHL referees is a nomadic one, traveling from city to city, living out of a suitcase. But just like the players, AHL officials are trying to impress their bosses to earn promotions to the big show. The AHL is to hockey what Triple-A is to baseball: top prospects hone their skills in an effort to make the jump to the best league the sport has to offer.
Rank played both hockey and golf at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. By the time he graduated in 2012, he realized his hockey skills weren’t good enough for the professional ranks. His older brother, Kyle, played NCAA Division I hockey at St. Lawrence University and then for five seasons in the AHL.
Garrett considered pursuing a golf career. He first qualified for a USGA championship in 2010 (APL) and two years later, he was in the Mid-Amateur final. In 2011, Rank was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Fortunately, the condition was caught early enough that surgery successfully removed the malignant cells. The cancer has remained in remission and it has not affected his officiating or golf game.
At about the same time, Lance Roberts, a former NHL official, contacted Rank about officiating in the Ontario Hockey Association, which encompasses the Junior B, C and D leagues in Canada. Officiating is in Rank’s blood. His father, Rich, had overseen the minor league association in Elmira, and Garrett refereed local games as a 14-year-old to make a few extra bucks.
When Roberts offered Rank an officiating position, he had to choose between becoming a referee or pursuing golf as a career. He chose hockey, and for the past five years, he has fast-tracked through the system. He worked in the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons before being signed last summer to an NHL contract. He also worked 10 AHL games last year.
As it turned out, Rank has been able to enjoy the best of both worlds. He’s being paid for something he loves without jeopardizing the summer competitive golf season.
“Once the NHL gave me the opportunity, it was too good,” said Rank, who had to withdraw from the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur because it coincided with his NHL officiating training camp. “I would have been a fool not to take it. It’s a really good gig in that I can play as much golf as I want in the summer.”
One downside is that Rank had to withdraw from Golf Canada’s National Team. Over the previous three years, Rank had traveled to Australia and South America over the winter for major amateur events, but he knew his professional career was on the ice, not the golf course.
There were times over the past three years when Rank began to burn out from all the tournaments. If anything, he is more determined and excited for the upcoming competitive golf season once the AHL season concludes on April 17. He is hoping to compete in the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship May 2-6 at The Olympic Club, in San Francisco, although AHL playoff assignments could jeopardize those plans.
Rank hasn’t completely abandoned golf this winter. While in Texas, he managed a couple of rounds on an off-day. During the AHL all-star break, he flew to Florida and played in the Naples area.
“It’s just like riding a bike,” said Rank, who also uses an indoor range and golf simulator when home. “My short game was a little rusty. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised where I was at.”
Rank’s last competitive event was the Canadian Mid-Amateur last September at Barrie Country Club, where he defeated American Rob Couture with a short birdie putt on the first playoff hole to win the championship. The victory earned Rank an exemption into the 2015 Canadian Open.
“So far, 2015 has been a good year,” said Rank. “I worked my first NHL game and I will get my first PGA Tour start.”
Jan. 15 will always be a special day for Rank. As part of a small group of AHL referees on contract with the NHL, he knew the promotion would eventually come. Due to scheduled off-days, injuries or illness, NHL officials need to be spelled by those who work in the AHL, and Rank’s debut came at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., where the Sabres faced the Minnesota Wild.
In Elmira, brother Kyle and other family and friends arranged for two buses to make the short trek across the border, and some 200 people cheered not for the players, but for one of the referees. Rank’s golf coach at Waterloo created placards bearing a referee’s uniform with Rank’s No. 48.
One person, however, was not in attendance. Rich Rank had died of a heart attack almost exactly a year earlier at the age of 57. Garrett knew his dad was with him in spirit.
“He’d be so proud,” Kyle told Bob McKenzie of TSN.com. “He would be right over the moon.”
In the locker room, Rank was surprisingly calm. Playing in pressure-cooker golf competitions had prepared him for this moment, as had the numerous minor-league games he had officiated. His legs felt heavy during the first few seconds on the ice, but partner Paul Devorski helped ease the nerves. Some players even came up and tapped him on the shinguard to welcome him to the league. Sabres Tyler Ennis and Mike Weber had been AHL teammates of Kyle in Portland (Maine).
“The guys were totally first class,” said Rank. “It was really cool to have that. The league … is like a big brotherhood. It’s kind of cool to be a part of that.”
Weber told the Buffalo News: “Whether you’re a referee or a player or a coach, everyone’s goal is to make it to the National Hockey League. This is the best league in the world, so it’s quite an honor and a privilege to make it this far. I’m obviously happy for [Kyle’s] brother.”
Five minutes into the game, the first goal was scored by Zach Parise of the Wild. Rank saw it go in cleanly. But officials in Toronto wanted to review it. The net had started to become dislodged from its pegs. Would the goal be allowed? After a few anxious moments, Rank got his answer from league headquarters. He then announced to the capacity crowd of 18,963 that it was a good goal. Two minutes later, he called his first penalty: a tripping infraction on Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers.
“It was an obvious call,” Rank said. “It was good to get settled in after the review.”
The rest of the 7-0 Wild victory was a smooth ride for Rank.
Twelve days later, he worked his second NHL game, a 4-3 overtime win for the Avalanche over the Predators in Nashville that featured the aforementioned catcalls.
“There’s a real laid-back confidence to Garrett,” said the NHL’s Walkom. “He’s just starting out; there’s still a lot of work for him to do to make his way, but he’s off to a very good start.”
On Feb. 1, Rank received an unexpected assignment. He would be refereeing the game between the Canadiens and Phoenix Coyotes at the Bell Centre in Montreal. This was a treasured assignment in the home of hockey’s most storied franchise, akin to teeing it up at Pebble Beach or the Old Course at St. Andrews.
For his first two NHL assignments, Rank focused totally on the game, but this would be different. A sold-out crowd of 21,286 would be ready to let him know if they disagreed with a call.
“I didn’t realize how high and steep the stands were,” said Rank afterward. “Montreal was part of the Original Six [NHL teams] and they’ve had a lot of famous people [who played for the team]. It was cool.”
Before the season ends, Rank likely will receive at least two more NHL assignments. He just doesn’t know where or when.
Most NHL referees are between the ages of 30 and 45, so Rank is confident that his career is following a proper path. Rank said the ideal timetable is two to five years, depending on turnover and professional development.
“When I started doing junior hockey, I thought it would be a cool thing to do for a living,” he said. “I was hired this year [by the NHL], so it’s been a pretty quick trajectory.”
David Shefter is a senior writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.