Buff State alum refs milestone 1,500th NHL game


Bill Wippert/Buffalo Sabres

Tim Nowak, a Buffalo State alum, appeared in his 1,500th game in Buffalo two weeks ago.

Andrew David Kuczkowski, Sports Editor

Tim Nowak was a traditional college student. Like many, he first went to Erie Community College then transferred to Buffalo State College.

He started at Buffalo State in 1987. However, his college days were cut short in 1990. No, not for failing grades, nor financial difficulties. His part time job turned into a full time career.

“It happened so quick because I was just doing local hockey here and one of the local signers really gave me kind of the kick start I needed,” Nowak said of refereeing. “Then I started doing a lot of games locally, whether it be junior games or the big tournaments.”

Nowak was wearing the stripes for the East Coast Hockey League, or ECHL, while in school. His ceiling was not here. Behind his persistence and eagerness, Nowak got himself notoriety in the local area.

“I remember the NHL put on, kind of like, a clinic,” Nowak said as he was selected as one of the top refs in the region. “I remember going to the ‘Aud’ (Buffalo Sabres’ former arena, the Memorial Auditorium). They were looking for officials. I went there and of course, they saw my name again and saw my name again and I went to a couple of schools, too, that they had like Kevin Collins (who was another well-known linesman).

“… In the NHL, they send scouts. There’ve been these supervisors for the clinic that say, ‘Okay, these people are interested.’ Some people go to get better, get more experience. Then there’s that group that is trying to move up.”

His path continued to the pros. While wearing the stripes, Nowak reached a remarkable milestone. On Oct. 29, he tied his skates and put on his uniform for the 1,500th time for an NHL game. It was a home game between his hometown Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators.

“It’s been very humbling,” Nowak said of the accomplishment. “I thought when it came up – the league fortunately lets you pick where you want it and who you want to work with — even though I moved down to Maryland now, hopefully (the Buffalo Sabres would) be home” when it came to the 1,500th game. “… If I ever have the opportunity to do it up in Buffalo, it was a no brainer.”

At Buffalo State, his alma mater

As a Bengal, he was a regular student-athlete who played hockey. He played the sole position that did not worry all too much for referees. He was the goaltender, the last guy back.

“I was a goalie and we had four goalies on the team that year,” Nowak recalled. “I was the starting goalie, luckily, and I was like ‘I’m not going to be around much.’ Buff State was as far as I was going to go, playing wise.”

Nowak hung up his skates and move on from the sport. He knew that officiating could be more than just clocking in hours.

“When officiating started,” he said, “I was like, I’m going to give this a shot. Schooling was on the backburner for now because I know I can go back and do that, knowing I was in the right place at the right time. That position (as a ref) might not be available for me.”

The combination of work and school is never easy. Classes don’t adapt to your schedule and work is usually much of the same. Nowak’s schedule was full of traveling to, doing his job and coming back from the arena. The closest team at the time in the ECHL was the former Erie Panthers in Erie, PA.

Then the decision had to be made. Education just could not be done alongside his job. A decision that would make most parents cringe. To Nowak, college had already taught him a lot. Things that transitioned well into his work ethic. His education taught him some things that are more important than a degree itself.

“When you go to college, time management is just unbelievable. The work load is so much and it’s something you have to do and you throw in the fact that people are working, playing and are doing their best to do well in school,” the 49-year-old Nowak said. “My daughter now dances and we drive about an hour about six days a week. She’s still a straight-A student. I’m like, ‘You know what? I remember those days.’”

Nowak still visits Buffalo State with fond memories. Whether it was his daily drive to and from or the moments he shared with friends, the campus gives him positive vibes as he reminisces. He comes to the school every-so-often the night before his games. Most times, it’s to see his friends referee here in the Sports Arena.

“I just walk down the hall (in the Sports Arena), and I always see the Hall of Fame pictures there,” he said. “And I’m like ‘Oh my God! That guy was here in the’50s!’ I’m just like, ‘wow,’ as I’m blown away by the history.”

Behind the stripes

His career only continued after his appearance at the ‘Aud.’ He quickly learned to adapt to the speedier, more agile players. Calls required more attention.

It was much different from his playing days. As the goaltender, his goal was to follow the puck — something that is frowned upon when a referee does it.

“It’s totally different,” Nowak said. “You can’t watch the game as an official. There’s so many officials, that everyone has a certain area that they’re watching or a certain thing they’re looking for. One of my first games, me being a goalie, I was like ‘Oh my God. He’s awful.’ But I can’t watch the game. I’ve got to officiate it.

“The guys that go out there and are basically watching the game, they can’t see because you have to officiate the game in order to do certain things, and there are certain measures that you have to look for. I can tell right away when a guy is watching the game because they just follow the puck like they’re watching a game on TV.”

As his career developed, so did his home life. He’s now married with a daughter. And he knows, as a father, he needs to be a role model. However, one question he wanted to be able to answer was ‘Where did you go to school?’

“I finished my degree online because my daughter was born in 2001,” he said. “And my last year (of school) was in 1990. When my daughter was born, I said ‘I have to finish my degree.’ I thought ‘What am I going to tell her when she asks where did you go to school?’ And I remember going to the mailbox and there was an advertisement for a ‘finish your degree online,’ and so, I did that. I had to go and get my transcripts and all that. When I was at Buff State, I only had like three or four classes left. That’s how close I was.”

Transfer students know this best: Not all credits transfer. He was very close to graduation. Though for his online school, that turned into 16 total classes (that includes different school and degree requirements). But nevertheless, he can answer that question if or when it comes.

At the end of the day, Nowak is the traditional Buffalo State student. No, he doesn’t boast a degree from the school, but it is his alma mater. The one thing he holds high is that no matter what he does or what he accomplishes, deep down he’s the Tim Nowak that his friends always knew. He is just a genuine guy.

“You never let your job define you,” Nowak added. “Everyone has a job in life and mine just happens to be officiating professional hockey. But it’s got to be one of the biggest compliments. I’ve done this and I’ve done that as far as officiating goes, but when they say I haven’t changed from before, that to me is ‘wow,’ because I think sometimes people may let that define them. And then they change and they’re not the person that they were before.”

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