Seattle’s NHL team won’t begin playing until 2021, but one Lake Stevens resident returns to big-league ice for his 20th season this week as he continues to chase milestones and personal goals. Vaughan Rody maintains neutrality on the job as an NHL linesman, but he’s just as excited as thousands of other Evergreen State hockey fans are about the NHL’s 32nd franchise.
“Honestly, my first thought was, ‘Finally, a home game,'” Rody says about his reaction to Seattle officially being granted an expansion team last year. “Seriously, it was my first thought. Wow, this is going to be pretty special.”
A hockey dad to two teenage boys and a fixture of the Seattle-area minor hockey scene as a key figure in developing young players’ skills, Rody has a perspective unlike anyone else in the area on all levels of hockey from the grass-roots up to the pros.
At 50 and about to add to the 1,114 NHL games officiated, Rody understandably wants a little relief in his travel schedule around North America. Based in Washington state with the nearest NHL city 117 miles away in Vancouver, Rody logs among the most mileage of any of the league’s on-ice officials.
It’s that sort of dedication and determination that took him from his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to chase his dream in Washington state so he could hone his craft in the Western Hockey League – while also working a day job at Boeing – on his way to the top. And it keeps him going after two serious injuries that required three back surgeries and two shoulder surgeries in the past six years.
“You’ve just got to kinda battle through, and you’ve gotta grind it out and you’ve gotta believe in yourself,” Rody says. “At the end of the day, you don’t reach this level without some sort of confidence and belief in yourself. And you realize that, hey, you’re gonna heal and you’re capable of pushing yourself to the limits to get back there. And you need to maintain a certain fitness level to be in this game. You owe it to the game; you owe it to the players.”
Rody’s story would be Bill Masterton Trophy-worthy material if he qualified for the NHL award given yearly to the player who exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. In Rody’s profession, the less you hear about him the better because it means he’s probably performing his job with exceptional results. But Rody’s perseverance and dedication deserve more attention after the challenges and health scares he’s overcome to work his way back to the NHL this season.
As he spoke one rainy August evening in his Lake Stevens home, Rody had already had a long bike ride in the morning, worked out at a gym around noon and would later go for a third workout that night. Training camp for linesmen and referees was still a couple of weeks away, and as he says, “It’s more important to be ready than get ready,” so he was pushing himself to be in top shape after having worked just eight NHL games and five AHL games the season before.
On the other hand, his genetics require that extra effort because, as he puts it, “There’s a lot of girth in our family.” He says his late father once weighed 432 pounds and his brothers have been around 392 and 285 pounds.
“I eat a cheeseburger, (and) I may as well tape it to my ass because I’m putting on five pounds,” Rody says with a laugh. “So you’ve got to be careful with what you eat and how it affects your day to day, especially when this is what you do for work.”
His drive to maintain optimum weight and fitness is intensified by memories of the fear he felt when he almost had his livelihood taken away prematurely. His back problems not only nearly ended a career he’s worked so hard for, but it came close to severely altering his quality of life.
“Skating’s what I do for work,” he says. “Never mind not being able to skate. But when they tell you that you might not be able to walk again, those are pretty scary things that you have to deal with.”
Spinal and shoulder injury scares
Rody hurt his back in a game in November 2013, and because his body “had never let me down,” he did his best to keep working through the injury before eventually having surgery to repair a herniated disc. Returning to the ice, again he tried to tough it out, partially because he had been assigned to work one of the league’s marquee games later that season, the Heritage Classic that was to take place on March 2, 2014, at BC Place in Vancouver.
“Silly, really silly,” he says. “I should have taken the whole year off, healed properly and came back the next year. Instead I pushed it to come back too soon and reinjured it.”
His last game that season was Jan. 26, 2014. Spinal fluid seeped out of the incision and the disc collapsed on top of the other disc, he says.
“There was no pain; there were three minutes of walking and my back would just turn into a ‘C,'” he says, forming a letter C with his hand, “and I’d be pulled over sideways. I remember then like, ‘Oh, we’re in trouble here.’ So then I had to go back in and had a spinal fusion.”
But the spinal fusion got infected, leading to what he describes as the worst six weeks of his life.
“I have two bolts on top and two bolts on the back and it’s wrapped in this little metal sheath. And they’re telling me if the infection is on the metal, we’re in a real problem here because those discs are only so big, we don’t have very much room to put another four pieces of metal on,” Rody says. “So we’re really hoping the infection is on the skin and we can clear the skin infection. But if the infection is on the metal, all bets are off.”
Having 18,000 angry hockey fans screaming down his neck while trying to do his job was nothing compared with the fear and anxiety he felt during that period of his life. Rody persevered, rehabilitated and returned to the ice Feb. 13, 2015, but a little more than three years later his shoulder got pulled out of the socket in a game between Columbus and Edmonton.
“The last thing I wanted to do was really go back and tell work that I was injured again. You know, because I don’t know what they’re thinking. I know my career is winding down and it’s a young man’s game, let’s be honest,” he says. “Once you get to a certain level, if you’re injured and you become injury prone it’s like a pro player, they start to move on from you.”
He’s a hockey guy, so naturally he tried to battle through the injury.
“It just got to the point where I couldn’t even wash the top of my head, shave my head it was so painful. I knew I had to have surgery,” he says.
By the looks of it, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble keeping his trademark bald look nowadays. His shoulder is feeling much better, he says, though it will never be 100 percent.
Power skating side gig develops Seattle youngsters
Keeping up with players half his age and younger requires a special talent that Rody has shared with hundreds of Washington state’s hockey players through Snohomish-based Pro Edge, a popular power skating program he founded in 2007. Well before an NHL expansion team looked remotely possible, Rody was playing a key role in the sport’s growth by helping the region’s youth with their hockey development.
“Honestly, we’ve been so fortunate. This is our 12th year now in our camp, and (when) we started it we had seven kids in our camp,” he says. “And this year we’ll probably have 450 come through our program. It’s not bad for a small-town, little Seattle, Washington.”
He’s proud of the program because of the results and he can relate to the trust that parents give him. Rody isn’t just a symbolic face of Pro Edge, he’s out on the ice teaching children and adults.
“These kids noticeably get faster, they get stronger, they get better,” he says. “And I think we instill, once they kind of understand how good they can become with a little bit of work and with a little bit of effort. That inner confidence grows. And once they start believing in themselves there’s no stopping them.”
Most of the region’s top players who’ve recently gone on to play at a high level have trained in the Pro Edge program, including Everett native Hunter Campbell of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen and Gig Harbor native Mekai Sanders of the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“It’s been great to watch these young guys develop and move on to higher levels,” Rody says. “I’m excited about going to Seattle and watch Mekai play because there’s another amazing story about a mom and dad who’ve put major time in and logged major miles, like all of us have as hockey parents.”
Pro Edge has Rody positioned well to capitalize on the likely explosive growth of the sport once the NHL team arrives along with its Northgate Ice Center and badly needed public rinks in Seattle. NHL Seattle’s impact on growing the sport and the region’s hockey community thrills him just as much as any personal benefit he might receive.
“I’m excited for the fans, I’m excited for the area, I’m excited for the city. I’m excited for people to come through and see how beautiful Seattle is, you know my co-workers,” he says. “When we live in the Pacific Northwest we’re kinda forgotten about up here a little bit. And it’ll be pretty awesome when people come through and realize what a true gem of a city this is and see how passionate these people are about their sports.”
A role in the organization as a coach or consultant would be a good fit for someone with the gravitas of skating in more than 1,100 NHL games. His technical expertise, experience and Rody’s clear and direct communication style could also be a great addition to local TV broadcasts. For newbies and longtime fans, he could explain rules and decisions from an official’s viewpoint just as former NBA referee Steve Javie does for ESPN and NFL ex-referee Gene Steratore does for CBS.
Rody’s season starts Saturday in Edmonton
In the immediate future, Saturday night’s Los Angeles Kings at Edmonton Oilers game will be the first of what he hopes is a full season of 75 games (for officials) while striving to reach another goal that’s similar to that of the players. He’s worked 19 playoff games but never one in the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I made a promise to my dad a long time ago that I’d get to a Cup Final for him. It’s the one thing that I’ve never really been able to really give him. And he’s been gone for nine years now, but I still owe it to him. But (also) to him and her, my mom and him they gave me a lot, an opportunity really, and you know,” Rody says as his voice trails off, pausing before speaking more softly, “… I try to keep my promises and that’s one I want to keep.”
He has two years remaining on his contract, plus a league option for a third year that’s dangling in front of him as extra motivation. That year, of course, would be the Seattle club’s inaugural 2021-22 campaign in the freshly rebuilt KeyArena.
“I think that if I do what’s expected of me and I perform the way I’m supposed to perform and the way I’m capable of I would hope I would get that third year for sure,” Rody says.
He’s just one of 33 people working at the world’s highest level of hockey linesmen, and one of only 66 on-ice officials in the NHL. Somewhat parallel to the thousands of hockey players vying for the 713 roster spots in the NHL, it takes a special kind of character and talent to stay at that level for this long.
At 5-foot-11 and 166 pounds, Rody acknowledges having a bit of a chip on his shoulder has helped push him, much like players who are told they’re not big enough or strong enough to get to the NHL. But he’s made it and stayed there, so it’s no surprise he wants to keep it going as long as possible.
He doesn’t want to be a spectator in 2021 even though Rody, the hockey fan, was among the thousands who signed up on the first day to put down deposits on six NHL Seattle season tickets.
“At least I’ll have six people in there who won’t boo me,” he says. “Otherwise it’ll be a long ride home for them.”