At 7:18 on the morning of June 14, Garrett Rank stood on the 10th tee at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, preparing to begin his opening round in the 118th United States Open Championship.
“I was super excited,” Rank recalls. “I was really looking forward to competing in a major championship. I was a little nervous, but felt better than I thought I was going to feel.”
Most of us spend considerable time and effort attempting to achieve our goals, perhaps in officiating, perhaps in another realm of our personal or professional lives. Rank has achieved success in two divergent arenas. The NHL referee is also an elite amateur golfer who has won national championships in his native Canada and has competed against PGA Tour players.
Merely being on the tee at Shinnecock Hills to compete in the U.S. Open that June morning was an incredible accomplishment. A total of 9,049 golfers attempted to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Open. Just 156 made it to Shinnecock Hills, and Rank was one of them after advancing through two stages of qualifying.
But his quest for success, on the ice and on the links, has not been without challenges. He has dealt with personal loss and a bout with cancer. His accomplishments are a testament to determination, perseverance and courage.
Rank, who turned 31 on Sept. 5, began his journey in Elmira, Ontario, a small community located a two-hour drive west of Toronto. He was the middle child of three, with an older brother and a younger sister. He first put on skates at age 4 and at 5 he was playing hockey.
“Every kid in Canada is born with their hockey skates on their feet,” Rank says. “I never really had dreams of being an NHL hockey official. Like everybody else, I wanted to be a player.”
Indeed, Rank was a promising player early on. “I was the team captain and had a lot of personal success scoring goals and being a team leader,” he says. “But as I got older, everybody else kept getting bigger and stronger and I had a late growth spurt, so when body-checking came in (at age 12) I was just an average player.”
Rank went on to play Junior B hockey for his hometown Elmira Sugarcanes. At that point, it could be argued his best sport was golf. He was introduced to the game at the age of 10. Along with his brother Kyle, five years his senior, they spent most of their summer days at Elmira Golf Club.
“My parents laughed and said it was kind of a babysitting tool for them for me my brother to be at the golf course all day,” Rank recalls, “because they knew we couldn’t get into trouble out there.
“I worked out there when I was a kid and tried to play every day with my friends. It was something I loved doing. At the time, I wasn’t a big baseball or soccer guy, and had a lot of fun playing golf.”
Jeremy Logel, the longtime director of golf at Elmira, noticed early on that Rank had a knack for the game.
“He had raw talent with a repeatable swing,” Logel says. “He had a mind for it, and a purity in his swing.”
Rank found success playing in junior tournaments, although he rarely, if ever, dominated. “I had some success on the junior tours in the local area,” he says. “I never really had a great junior career but was always one of the better junior players in the area for sure.”
Rank was 14 when he got his first taste of officiating, at the encouragement of his father Rich, who was an official himself. Rank says he picked up a whistle “to make some money as a kind of a part-time job on Saturday and Sunday mornings.”
He started working in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association before moving up to the Ontario Hockey Association, where he worked Junior B games among other things. At 21, he started working major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League (OHA).
As Rank climbed the officiating ladder, two of his mentors were Murray Martin and Doug Martin (not related), who were supervisors in the Elmira District Hockey Referees Association.
“Both those guys pushed me along and really took me under their wing,” Rank says, “and said, ‘Hey, we think you have pretty good intangible tools that not a lot of people have and think you could have some success in officiating.’ They were two guys that really worked a lot with me trying to make me a better official.”
Doug Martin says that even in his mid-teens, Rank stood out on the ice. “You could see then that he had an abundance of talent,” he recalls. “His skating ability was probably the one thing that stood out, but then he was big, tall, strong, and he just had, you could call it, on-ice presence.
“From a young age he had that raw talent. That’s a gift and he had it, and he pursued it.”
Rank himself says his personality lends itself to officiating.
“I’m very type A,” he says. “I like to be in control of everything. I think it was just a good fit.
“I never really minded when people started yelling and getting mad. It was kind of humorous. to me. I was able to quantitatively say, ‘Hey, they’re just mad at my jersey. They’re not mad at me.’”
Amid all that, Rank continued to play hockey. He was attending Waterloo (Ontario) University on a golf scholarship, but had walked onto the school’s hockey team.
By January 2011, midway through his third year at Waterloo, Rank felt some discomfort in his groin area while working a game and went to see his doctor. Two days later he underwent an ultrasound. Twenty-four hours later he was told he had testicular cancer.
“I remember real vividly coming out in shock from the doctor’s office,” Rank says. “My dad was in the waiting area and he just looked at me. I had kind of this blank look on my face and he said, ‘Hey what’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘I’ve got cancer.’ It kind of felt like he took it harder than I did. He said, ‘What do mean you have cancer?’”
Just three days later, on Jan. 31, 2011, Rank underwent surgery.
“For me, it happened so fast,” he recalls. “I (received the diagnosis) on a Friday, and Monday morning I was having surgery. I didn’t have a lot of time for it to sink in or dwell on the fact that I had cancer. It was more just like, ‘OK, I’ve got this thing and we’re going to get rid of it and then we’re going to carry on with my life.’”
For Rank, carrying on with his life meant getting back on the ice. That spring he worked a single OHA playoff game. Whether doing so was in his best interests medically is a question open to debate.
“I probably shouldn’t have,” he says, “but I wanted to get out there and back officiating. It was kind of my release.”
Rank’s cancer surgery and subsequent chemotherapy caused him to lose weight and led him to retire as a hockey player. But he was able to focus his attention on officiating and golf. By that time, he was competing in elite amateur golf events and was a member of Canada’s national team.
A “Just Miss”
In October 2012, 21 months after his cancer surgery, Rank was in Lake Forest, Ill., outside Chicago, to compete in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship for golfers 25 and older. Rank, who turned 25 just three days before the championship started, was the youngest player in the field. He survived two rounds of stroke-play qualifying before winning five matches to advance to the 36-hole final against three-time champion Nathan Smith.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur champion traditionally receives an invitation to the Masters the following year so both players had some additional incentive. Rank found himself three down on two occasions during the 36-hole match, but rallied to draw all square with two holes to play. He bogeyed the 35th hole, then missed a 15-foot birdie try at the 36th that would have extended the match.
Rank readily admits the possibility of a Masters invitation was at times on his mind during the tournament. “I guess I thought about it during the week,” he says. “I thought about it going there. It never really crossed my mind during the (championship match). It might have changed my career. If I had won that day I would have played in the Masters and maybe considered turning pro right after that, and who knows where I could be?”
Dad and the Gold-Medal Game
As he enhanced his stature as a golfer, Rank continued to impress with his work on the ice. After Christmas 2013, he was assigned to work the World U-17 Hockey Challenge in Sydney, Nova Scotia, which brought together some of the finest young hockey talent from Canada and elsewhere around the globe.
Rich Rank enthusiastically supported his second son’s officiating ambitions and was particularly excited for him.
“My dad had been bugging me all week about whether or not I was going to get the gold medal game,” Rank recalls. “He really wanted me to do well; he asked me more in detail how the games were going.”
But with just a few days left in the tournament, Rank got a call from his brother, telling him his father had suffered a heart attack. Not long after, his brother called again and told him their father had died at age 57.
Rank, who had indeed been assigned to the gold medal game, decided to remain in Nova Scotia and work it.
“There were only one or two days left in the tournament,” he says, “and there was a snowstorm in Nova Scotia, so there weren’t really that many options to get me home that much earlier.
“The thing my dad would have wanted me to do was stay there and officiate the gold medal game.”
Rank admits he felt some emotional tugs when he took the ice for the final. “There were definitely tears in my eyes,” he says, “but it’s a cool feeling when you have the opportunity to be out there officiating the game knowing that, hey, your dad passed away but he would be so proud of what you’re doing and this is exactly what he’d want for you.”
Rank says now that the combination of his cancer diagnosis and his father’s death three years later had an impact on his attitude toward both golf and officiating.
“I think my attitude kind of changed toward sports,” he says. “A bad golf shot or a bad call on the ice really isn’t as bad as it could be.”
In July 2014, just seven months after his father’s passing, Rank found himself at a crossroads. He had ambitions of a hockey career but he was a member of the Canadian national golf team and was still considering playing professional golf.
When Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, asked him to come to the league office for a meeting, he was apprehensive.
“I was still officiating at a high level and doing all the games,” Rank says, “but I’d leave for two weeks at a time to go play in events in Australia or go play golf here or there. I honestly thought he was pulling me into his office to tell me, ‘Hey kid, we’re looking at you, you’re on our radar, but if you want to do this for a career you’re going to have to go all in and make a decision.’”
But friends and colleagues assured him he wouldn’t have been summoned to the league office to get bad news. In fact, Walkom offered him a minor-league contract, one that called for him to split his time between the American Hockey League (AHL) and the NHL.
Rank’s skating ability set him apart as a prospect
Walkom says Rank’s skating ability set him apart as a prospect. “It’s real important for the skating skill-set to stand out over and above anyone else that you’re working with,” Walkom points out. “That to me is absolutely vital. That kind of gets you noticed. Because then you know you have a chance to keep up with the pace of the NHL game.”
Walkom points out that Rank brought other attributes to the job as well. “Garrett has that hockey IQ,” he says. “He played university hockey, which is pretty high level. He didn’t play major junior hockey, but he played a high enough level that he could still make it at the Canadian university level, which is really high hockey.
“He has that innate sense of the game, what is right and what is wrong, and he has the right personality for it.”
Rank now had a clearly defined career path. But golf was still on his radar. In September of that year, he won the Canadian Mid-Amateur Championship, thereby qualifying for the following year’s Canadian Open.
From there it was on to the AHL, where he found himself having to reacquaint himself in the one-referee system after working exclusively in the two-referee (four-official) system in the OHL.
“In the American League you worked maybe 30 percent of your games (with one referee),” Rank says, “and I hadn’t done that since minor hockey. So, when I worked by myself in the American League it was definitely a bit of a change.”
On to the NHL
Rank apparently adapted well enough. On Jan. 15, 2015, he took the ice at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo to referee his first NHL game, between the Sabres and the Minnesota Wild. He was 27 at the time, the youngest member of the NHL’s refereeing corps.
“I had about 200 family and friends there,” he says, “and to step on the ice and knowing you’re working your first NHL game was really neat. You put in a lot of time in the car, a lot of time in the airport traveling around and to finally make that level was a huge honor.”
Rank notes his NHL career got off to a less-than-auspicious beginning. “I remember five minutes into the game we had a video review as to whether a goal had gone in or not,” he says. “I had waved off the goal and video review said that the goal had gone in.”
But it was still a memorable occasion. The only downside was the fact that Rich Rank wasn’t there.
“He was very involved in my officiating career and loved officiating,” Rank says. “He was big to push me into officiating rather than trying golf for a living.”
Rank worked eight NHL games that first season and 31 the next. He also worked the AHL’s Calder Cup finals both seasons before being promoted to the NHL on a full-time basis prior to the 2016-17 season.
Still a relative NHL novice, Rank relishes the opportunity to learn from the men he shares the ice with each night. “Those guys are the best at what they do,” he says, “and you’re trying to learn in-game from those guys — how they react in different situations, how they carry themselves.
“As a whole, our crew does a great job of trying to make each other better so there is a lot of really good positive feedback that I get from a ton of the veterans.”
One of those veterans was Paul Devorski, with whom Rank worked his first NHL game and whose last year as a referee in the league was Rank’s first. NHL policy stipulates that an on-ice official in the final year of his career is not eligible to work in the postseason. He is charged instead with working with and mentoring his younger colleagues.
“I worked probably six of my eight games my first year with him,” Rank says. “‘Devo’ was one of the most respected officials on our staff within the game and just seeing how much respect he had from the guys and the things that he taught me, the little tricks that he had — I owe him a lot.
“Then learning from Don Koharski, Billy McCreary, Rob Shick, all our current managers (and all former NHL referees).”
Rank says today’s technology forces officials to acknowledge errors. “I think the game’s kind of changed now with all the microphones and all the cameras out there,” he says. “The biggest thing now for all us young guys coming up is, never lie.”
The U.S. Open
Golf remains an important part of Rank’s life. He successfully defended his Canadian Mid-Am title in 2015 and that same year represented Canada in the Pan American Games in Toronto. The following year he made the cut in the Canadian Open before winning his third straight Canadian Mid-Amateur title.
But Rank’s biggest moment on the links to date was earning a place in this year’s U.S. Open field. He missed the cut after rounds of 83 and 75 left him at 158, but it was still a memorable experience, one he was able to share with his brother, who caddied for him.
“Anytime you get to tee it up on the PGA Tour, it’s a huge honor,” Rank says. “I think playing in Canada in front of a few more family and friends was pretty neat. I’ll always remember the first time I played on the PGA Tour, but the U.S. Open was another level.
“The golf course at Shinnecock Hills was amazing, very historic, and one of America’s greatest layouts, and they soup it up or make it a lot harder with U.S. Open conditions. It really tests your golf game.”
Golf an Asset on the Ice
Rank feels his experiences in golf have been an asset on the ice. “I’m super competitive,” he says. “I know why (hockey players) get upset; they’re just trying to win, or trying to do well.
“At the end of the day these guys are trying to put food on the table for their family and when push comes to shove they need to make a living playing hockey. So just being in the mindset of a golfer and knowing how competitive I get when I’m playing the game of golf, I totally understand the reactions and the emotions of the guys playing hockey.”
Last spring, Rank was assigned to three Stanley Cup playoff games as a standby official and actually took the ice in game two of the first-round series between Columbus and Washington. He worked the third period and overtime as a linesman after Steve Barton was injured.
As a golfer, he competes in some of the sport’s biggest events and plays some of the finest courses in the world without the immense pressure that goes along with playing the game for a living.
He talks of playing in the Masters someday and about winning the Canadian Amateur title. But first and foremost, he is contemplating a long career in the NHL.
“It’s a goal of mine to someday hopefully work the Stanley Cup Finals,” he says. “As long as my body and mind hold up, and I mentally feel good, I’d probably like to work until I’m between 50 and 55. I know the game’s getting faster. There’s a ton of travel in our business, so your body wears out. But mentally you stay young if you’re (active) with the young players and the young officials.”
And what would his father have to say about all this?
“I miss my dad,” Rank says. “I wish he was still here, but at the same time you have to realize that he’s watching and super proud.
“He’d always criticize the guys working when he watched the Leafs games so he’s probably criticizing me when I’m out there working, and extremely proud at the same time.”
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