Wichita Thunder

Making the calls

For the past 19 years, Dennis Mercer has seen the best (Ron Handy), the strongest (Jim Latos), the nuttiest (Brent Sapergia) and the toughest (Trevor Converse) players to lace up their skates for the Wichita Thunder hockey team.

Given their well-documented passion for the Thunder, longtime fans will disagree with some of the above opinions, but bear in mind that Mercer formed his views under ideal circumstances. For nearly two decades, the life-long Wichitan has served as a Central Hockey League linesman, a position that allows him close proximity to the action — so close that he broke his tibia in an on-ice collision years ago and once got smacked in the head by an off-target punch from players exchanging blows.

No complaints from Mercer, though.

"I've got the best seat in the house," he said.

Mercer's distinguished career, which began during the Thunder's inaugural season of 1992, is nearing an end. After officiating today's game, he is scheduled to work his 500th on Monday when the Thunder plays host to Missouri at Intrust Bank Arena.

Wearing down from the rigors of the job, the 50-year-old Mercer had planned to retire after reaching the milestone, but the CHL, which is highly complimentary of his performance, talked him into continuing through February.

Even though Mercer is a part-time linesman — he has worked full time as a business analyst for Spirit Aero Systems for 25 years — he will be difficult to replace.

Wayne Bonney, the CHL's supervisor of officials, described Mercer as a "true professional." And Bonney's opinion is one to be respected, given that he officiated 24 years in the National Hockey League and worked five Stanley Cup Finals.

"He comes to work every game and does his best, game in and game out," Bonney said. "I've never had one complaint about him in my seven years (in the CHL), and that says something because he's worked a lot of games. Every time I've watched him, he's been very good."

Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno called Mercer "easily one of the best officials in the CHL." Lomurno also described Mercer as a "great guy," in part because he has voluntarily worked all 10 of the team's charity wheelchair games.

Such comments should be cherished, for they are rare in Mercer's line of work.

Each time Mercer and his fellow officials (another linesman and the referee) take the ice, the IBA loudspeaker blares "Here come the men in black...." That's not necessarily a bad introduction for a day at the office, but then comes the inevitible: Boos from all parts of the arena, from people who really have no reason to boo.

It's nothing personal, Mercer realizes.

"That's just hockey tradition," he said. "It doesn't bother me none."

Mercer is also accustomed to getting an earful from coaches, usually in the saltiest language imaginable. As a linesman, Mercer can tell the referee if a coach has gone too far, and the ref can assess a penalty. Mercer has never taken that step, and he seems to take great pride in that fact. (For the record, Mercer said that Thunder coach Kevin McClelland "barked" at him a few times early in the season but has been rather quiet lately.)

"If a coach feels you messed up, you're gonna hear about it," Mercer said. "If you can't let that stuff bounce off of you, you're in the wrong business. Sometimes, when I know I screwed up a call, I'm gonna eat it. I'm gonna take whatever that coach is giving me. I learned early on in my career that you don't lie to these guys. If you screw up, just tell 'em you screwed up."

Perhaps the most-visible aspect of Mercer's job comes during what some fans consider the most-exciting part of the game — the fights. Players drop the gloves, and Mercer goes to work.

During a bout, the linesmen closely watch the players, making certain that neither fighter is dazed or in danger.

"If you've got two guys who wanna go, you let 'em go," Mercer said. "And if they're standing and it's a fair fight, you let 'em go. But if a guy is hurt, if he got lit up, we're coming in. We want to protect the guys."

What becomes clear while discussing hockey with Mercer is that he has great respect for "the guys," the players he alternately polices and protects. That's partly because Mercer has played the game himself, ever since he was 5 when he first put on the skates at the old Silver Skate Ice Arena on West Kellogg.

Mercer loves the sport, loves the guys who play it.

He has particular fondness for several of the players from the glory days, back when coach Doug Shedden recruited a team of scorers, fighters and, above all, characters.

Asked about the players he has most enjoyed watching, he immediately mentioned Latos, a menacing winger on the Thunder's championship teams. "He was strong, the best corner guy I ever saw."

Handy was the best centerman — expert at winning draws — and Sapergia was "just crazy, a fun guy to officiate."

The best fighter? Converse, a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder who piled up 119 penalty minutes in 1999-2000.

"He was a lefty, and he could fight," Mercer said. "I remember one game he fought Wade Brookbank from Oklahoma City three times, and Brookbank ended up making it to the show. And remember John Hewitt, that big kid who had that knot on his head? He was kind of a scary dude."

While Mercer, married with three children, still loves the job, the preseason conditioning and the skating required during games has become too much. Players work in short shifts; officials don't get that break.

It's simply time, he said.

"The day after games, I'm wiped out — it's like a truck ran over me," he said. "I watch the NHL and I don't see a lot of old dudes out there. It's physically demanding and draining on this old guy. But I've loved it. It's been a pretty cool ride."