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NHL referee Garrett Rank ends up in his first U.S. Open

Garrett Rank, a Canadian-born NHL referee and cancer

Garrett Rank, a Canadian-born NHL referee and cancer survivor who qualified for the U.S. Open, speaks with the media at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Monday. Credit: James Escher

If Garrett Rank commits a penalty this week during the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, he’ll call it on himself, because that’s what golfers do.

That would be in distinct contrast to what Rank does in his regular job — he blows his whistle, throws his arm in the air and sends offending hockey players to the penalty box.

Rank is an amateur golfer who went through qualifying to earn a spot in the U.S. Open.

But the 30-year-old from Elmira, Canada, in southwestern Ontario, went through the hard road to become an NHL referee.

It was a road through the minor leagues of the game, and a road that included overcoming testicular cancer in 2011 and coping with the sudden death of his father in 2014.

Now here he is at Shinnecock Hills this week for his first U.S. Open, though it would be a mistake to think that he was a just good player lucky enough to shoot two good scores in a Georgia qualifier to punch his ticket. He lost in the U.S. Mid-Amateur final in 2012, won the Canadian Mid-Amateur championship three times and made the cut in the Canadian Open. Had he won that U.S. Mid-Am final, he would have earned an invitation to the Masters.

“I’ve got a real job, so I consider this like the pinnacle of my golf career this week,” said Rank, basking in the sort of adulation that hockey referees never attain. “I’ve played a lot of USGA events in the past. Like you touched on, in 2012, it was — I wouldn’t call it a disappointment, but I definitely thought about the Masters a few times post Mid-Am. And just going and playing in any USGA championship is a huge honor.”

Hockey and golf have had a close relationship for decades now. That standard line about a team missing the playoffs is: At least they can get early tee times.

“Growing up in Canada, you’re kind of born with a pair of skates on your feet so hockey is probably our number one sport,” Rank said. “But golf is getting there.”

And golf might have advanced his progress into the NHL as a full-time referee in 2016.

“I think I kind of forced the NHL’s hand with my golf abilities,” Rank said. “I think they looked at me and said, hey, we’ve got a chance to — we like this kid. We think he’s good, but there’s a chance that he’s going to try and go play golf for a living. So I think I got into the NHL a few years earlier than I expected. And at the time, I made a promise to myself that whatever panned out first, whether it be reffing or golf, then that’s what I was going to choose to do as my career.”

Former Islander Travis Hamonic once invited Rank to play in an event. “He’s in Calgary now, but he was on the Islanders. I played kind of a charity event in his group in Winnipeg a couple years ago and ended up shooting 58 that day,” Rank said. “He knew how good I was, and he uninvited me back to the tournament one day on the ice when I made a bad call and he wasn’t happy with me. He revoked my invitation.”

Rank refereed the first round of the this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, and has had time to work on his game since. The Stanley Cup Final could have lasted into this week.

“I got a question the other day about whether I would want to finish in the top 10 in the U.S. Open or work Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and I answered with the top 10 at the U.S. Open,” Rank said. “And I said I’d save the Stanley Cup Finals for 15 years down the road when my golf game wasn’t as strong.”

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