EDMONTON – There is no doubting Brent Reiber is Canadian, but so much about him is Swiss that his Canadian self seems like a past life, one that he remembers and fondly returns to when he can but one that is no longer front and centre.
Reiber’s accent is distinctly Western Canada, and his love for hockey began in a typical Canadian way, but he married a Swiss girl and has been living in his adopted homeland for many years now, with only a rare foray back to Canada.
“I grew up on a small rural farm 30 kilometres north of Lloydminster,” Reiber explained. “We were right on the border. In fact, when I mowed the grass around our house, I mowed both Alberta grass and Saskatchewan grass! The house is on the Saskatchewan side, though, so technically I was a Saskatchewan resident.”
Like most Canadian boys, Reiber played hockey, and like most he was very good – just not NHL good. He was wise beyond his years and realized both his skills and limitations early, but his passion for the puck game was not so easily diminished.
“I started refereeing early,” he said. “I got my first referee card for the 1980-81 season when I was 13. I played hockey as well, of course, but when I was 17 I decided to focus on being a ref. I tried out for a Junior A team in Lloydminster, but my coach was old school and liked his players big and tough. I knew I wasn’t going to make it.”
Reiber used his refereeing to advance his career on ice while getting an education just in case life brought him down to earth and took the whistle from him. “I went to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and studied history, paying for tuition with money I made refereeing games. Then I went to graduate studies at Rutgers in New Jersey and finished everything but my thesis.”
All the while Reiber was establishing a reputation as an excellent arbiter, moving up from local levels to Junior A and then to the Western Hockey League, eventually earning a call to the Memorial Cup. Reiber joined the IIHF roster of officials in 1996 when he was assigned to the World Championship, B Pool, in Eindhoven, Netherlands. A year later, he moved to Switzerland and never looked back.
Reiber’s life took another turn soon after. “For the 1998 IIHF World Championship in Zurich, the IIHF hired me as the commercial coordinator,” he related, “so I sat in the penalty box every game at the Hallenstadion and made sure everything worked with commercials and the timer. I met my wife there, and if there was any doubt as to whether we were going to live in Switzerland or Canada, that ended very soon after I met her father. He didn’t speak much English, but he made it clear that he believed refereeing wasn’t a real job and his daughter wasn’t going anywhere!”
That was okay with Reiber, and although he misses Canada he sees his life in Switzerland continuing long after he has handled his last game. “I feel like I’ve found my niche here. I enjoy the job, and I see as I look to a life after refereeing the opportunities in the coming years are excellent here.”
Reiber was among that first group of officials in Europe to participate in the Referee Exchange Program, a unique opportunity which saw referees from top hockey nations throughout the continent work in other leagues to ensure a more uniform—and high—standard of officiating for the top international events. More recently, Reiber has been part of a similar exchange program between Switzerland and Germany,
The last two seasons has afforded Reiber two momentous career achievements. First, he was part of the crew to work the 2010 Olympics, and then at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, he was assigned the gold medal game with partner Darcy Burchell, a Canadian. The two linesmen were also Canadian, marking the first time four Canadians had worked a gold-medal game (by birth anyway – Reiber is rightfully counted as a Swiss citizen now).
“Going to Vancouver was special,” Reiber said with pride. “I’ve done close to 3,000 games in my life, about 1,700 pro, and I don’t get nervous for games. But the night before my first game in Vancouver, I didn’t’ sleep. The Olympics in Canada is once in a lifetime. It’s a real treat to officiate in front of a crowd where they are students of the game. It makes you more excited, more accountable. I’ll never forget it. I’ve been home only four times in 15 years, and each time I realize how the fans really SEE the game. It’s such a treat.”
A year later, he was again prominent. “Doing the gold medal game in Bratislava was a personal highlight, of course, especially with Darcy whom I worked the last half of the tournament with. You always want to work the last game of the year, and when the IIHF President shakes your hand after, you feel good. Doing the Olympics definitely helped prepare me for the game.”
Reiber returns home only every other year while his family visits him the years he stays in Switzerland. There is a practical reason for his extended absences, though. “Hockey isn’t what it used to be,” Reiber noted of a sport that operates pretty much 12 months a year. “This year’s Worlds will end May 20, and our first training camp for the next season is four days later!”
That being said, Reiber has already been named to the team of officials going to Alberta for the 2012 U20, and he can’t wait for the chance to return home both to see family and to work the premier junior event in what should be the greatest U20 in tournament history. “This year is really special,” he admitted. “I’ll have eight or nine days at home in Lloydminster with my family at Christmas before the U20. It’s a special opportunity for me and I’m thankful the IIHF gave it to me.”
Although Reiber has skated alongside many of the game’s greatest players, he has special fondness for goalie Martin Brodeur whom he saw up close at the end of the NHL’s lost season of 2004-05. “I remember in 2005 at the World Championship doing the Canada-U.S. game,” he said. “This was the first time in the modern era that a referee from one of the two countries did a game, and I remember how impressed I was with Martin Brodeur. What a pro. He had a really inspiring presence, communicated with his players, a real leader.”
Those words are ones that could be applied to Reiber himself, for without those qualities, he never would have been assigned a game involving his birth nation.
Which brings us back to the 2012 U20 World Championship. There on the game schedule, bigger than life, is Canada-United States, December 31, 2011. Another New Year’s Eve classic is sure to unfold, but will Reiber be at centre ice for the opening faceoff?
“I don’t think I’ll be assigned a Canada game,” he said with a laugh, “but I’d love to be there, watching, anyway. Those teams have developed quite a rivalry in recent years and New Year’s Eve games are classic.”
The double whammy is that December 31 also happens to be his birthday, number 45 this year.
“The last time I worked on my birthday was three years ago at the Spengler Cup final, and the entire crowd sang Happy Birthday for me. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.” Reiber is probably right about that, but it will be a memorable celebration for him regardless.