Wayne Claxton refereed hockey for 30 years before losing his leg. Referees from across North America have chipped in to help him cover the cost of his new $61,000 prosthetic. - Gary Yokoyama,The Hamilton Spectator
By Scott Radley, Hamilton Spectator
In a quiet moment before the hall started filling with supporters, donors and well-wishers, he stood and stared at the sweater. Every single active NHL referee and linesman had signed their name on the white stripes between the black ones.
For a longtime hockey official who's put endless kilometres on his blades over the decades and forced enough air through his whistle to fill a hot-air balloon, this might've been the single greatest silent auction item he'd ever seen.
"Man, I'd be bidding on this," Wayne Claxton remembers thinking to himself. "But I guess that would be inappropriate since they're raising the money for me."
If you've played hockey in this area over the past 30 years, chances are the 58-year-old Waterdown native has called one or more of your games.
He took up reffing in his mid-20s when he realized even beer-league hockey was getting too competitive for what he wanted. After a year of working house league games in Stoney Creek, he moved up to the rep level and began doing three or four games a week. Thousands of games later he became an Ontario Minor Hockey Association supervisor. Then an OMHA instructor.
He was in the middle of a midget AAA game last October at Gateway Ice Centre when he felt a tweak in his leg. Probably a pulled muscle, he figured. He kept skating for another couple months figuring it would eventually pass. Except it didn't.
Soon he started noticing a lump about the size of a golf ball on the front of his hip. An ultrasound led to a diagnosis of a hematoma. Stay off his skates for a couple months and it'll go away, they said. Again, it didn't. Instead he began losing weight and feeling more and more lethargic. Blood work led to an emergency MRI which led exactly where you're expecting it to.
"By May 3, I was told I had cancer and it wasn't good," Claxton says.
The sarcoma wasn't treatable. So two weeks later, on his last day with a right leg, he and his wife walked to Hutch's and then he cut the grass. Because he could. Then he checked himself into hospital for surgery and woke up minus a limb.
Refereeing was done. He knew that. Worse, because his leg had been removed right across the hip, he didn't even have a stump left. No stump means no method to swing an artificial leg forward. Meaning the typical devices wouldn't work for him.
If he wanted any kind of mobility he'd have to buy a special prosthetic that works by pelvic thrust. He lurches what's left of his hip forward then a computer in the knee goes to work. If it senses pressure on the foot it locks to offer stability with his step. If there's no pressure, it releases the joint so he can kick the leg forward.
If it sounds amazing, it is. It's a remarkable piece of technology. It's also $61,000, which wasn't covered by any insurance since he's self-employed.
"The government covered $8,000 and War Amps put $1,000 in," he says. "I had to come up with about $50,000."
Which is how he found himself standing in that church hall on Saturday night staring at that autographed sweater. His kids had figured it was a chance for people to help their dad. Especially those in the officiating community.
Despite his situation, he hadn't quit. He was still instructing clinics for the OMHA and still working as head of referees for Stoney Creek Minor Hockey. All the while, liberally sharing self-deprecating amputation jokes to make others feel at ease around him.
When folks began streaming into the room, his jaw dropped. He saw co-workers and former co-workers and friends and friends of friends. Then he noticed that guy standing over there was a ref. And that guy on the other side of the room was a ref. And that woman was an administrator with the referees' association. And that woman there was an official. And on and on.
Hundreds of folks showed up. A huge number was connected to the officiating fraternity.
"I was amazed," he says. "I was overwhelmed."
In addition to showing up and paying their entry fee, various officials had donated prizes for the silent auction. They'd given prizes for the draws. The Grimsby referees' association raised $1,000. Same with the stripes from Orillia. The NHL refs had thrown in $1,000.
It started to add up. When the money was counted at the end of the evening, there was $20,000 in the bucket to go with the $10,000 his daughters had helped gather from a GoFundMe page that had drawn many, many responses.
It covered a huge chunk of the weighty cost that had been hanging over him. He's still working on the remaining $20,000 but that's for another day.
There was one more piece of business, however. That signed referee sweater.
Some vigorous bidding had driven up the price until the last moment when it sold for $850. Making it a lovely — albeit hefty — trophy for some sports bar or the wall of a man cave. When the winner came to the front of the room to collect it, Claxton applauded with appreciation for the donation it signified. Though perhaps, with a hint of envy.
Then the buyer grabbed the microphone. It wasn't just him who'd won it, he explained. A bunch of officials had pooled their money and kept increasing their bid until they got it. They were not going to miss out. It was too cool a prize. Too meaningful, as well. Especially to one person in the room.
With that, he turned to a now-misty Claxton. And handed him the sweater.
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