Where will you be in 10 years?
In Okemos High School's 2001 yearbook, then-17-year-old Tim Mayer gave an optimistic response: He was going to be a referee in the National Hockey League.
Now, Mayer shakes his head and laughs. His statement might have seemed overconfident at the time. It turned out to be prophetic.
A former “wannabe” hockey player himself, he knew his only hope to get on the ice during a professional game was going to come in black-and-white stripes.
His father, Dennis Mayer, was an NCAA basketball official for more than 25 years. Tim was named after longtime MLB umpire and Michigan State graduate, Tim McClelland.
Wearing a whistle was almost expected, in his mind.
Fast forward 17 years, and Mayer has yet to officiate an NHL game. He most likely never will.
He didn’t reach his goal.
Instead, over the past 14 seasons, Mayer has traveled to 10 countries and climbed the ranks of officiating, calling thousands of games in every league not named the NHL. He has witnessed some of the top hockey exploits on the international stage. He made it on the ice on the pro level.
And in early February, he will scratch another country off his list.
Mayer will travel to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he will be the lone American men’s hockey referee at the 2018 Winter Olympics thanks to the NHL Players Association’s decision to not take part in the games.
“It’s absolutely a dream come true,” Mayer smiled, adding that the U.S. is also sending two line judges to South Korea. “This was the dangling carrot for me. I can’t really put it into words. It’s a relief. I’m honored.
“This is my NHL. This is it.”
Mayer said his dreams of becoming an NHL official decreased with each passing year of grinding it out in the minor leagues. He never got the call. He isn’t sure why, but he has accepted his fate.
It’s an emotional subject, bringing the 34-year-old to tears inside a steamy coffee shop on a Thursday afternoon on the south side of Battle Creek, 80 miles from his Grand Rapids home.
Is he bitter about never getting an opportunity in the NHL?
He says he's not. He “sleeps great at night.”
Now, he tries to groom and be there for guys who still have a chance to make it, he said. It’s bittersweet, but he says he loves seeing officials who he mentored get the “call-up.”
Officiating in the NHL is a “young man’s game,” he said, although his youthful looks and infectious personality hardly make him seem like a grizzled veteran of the game.
He was driving to Grand Rapids from Big Rapids when his cellphone began to ring. It was summertime, and he was between house-painting jobs, doing his “real job,” he laughed.
The call was from Colorado. Who did he know there, he thought?
He thinks he probably came off as annoyed when he answered. He almost let it go to voicemail.
Thankfully, he didn't. On the other end of the line was USA Hockey with an important message: He'd been chosen for the Olympics.
Mayer had started out officiating games in high school just to earn a few extra bucks and some ice time. He worked in the equipment room in East Lansing, filling up water bottles and doing laundry for the MSU hockey team in college.
His biggest thrill was playing in a few inter-squad scrimmage games. It was his “hockey glory,” he said. He just wanted to stay involved.
Now, he was on the phone with USA Hockey director, Matt Leaf, receiving the call he had always dreamed of.
“I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face,” he said, once again failing to ease his grin. “I was almost in shock. It was unreal. I was at a loss for words.”
After he hung up, his first call was to his younger brother, Rob Mayer.“It was just pure excitement for him. I couldn’t be happier for him,” Rob said, adding that any major achievement in his life has also started with a call to Tim. “He is the person I have always looked up to, and he paved the way for me. He does things the right way.”
Rob, 32, also went the officiating route out of college. He followed Tim to junior hockey and the minor leagues. But, after two seasons, Rob decided to give up his pro hockey aspirations and start a family.
Tim is single and living what he called a “selfish life."
He reminisced about the long drives from town to town, battling blizzard conditions and fatigue to reach the next half-empty arena in the middle of nowhere. He refs roughly 85 games a year between October and April. Last season, his numbers reached the mid-90s.
That means plenty of nights eating alone in restaurants and hotels around North America. Missing holidays with his family has become the norm.
It’s all for the love of the game, he said.
But reaching this professional pinnacle couldn’t have come at a better the time.
After the 2019 season, Mayer said he is leaving officiating in his rear-view mirror. He's at least hanging up his skates. He still wants to be involved in some capacity.
His focus is changing. The idea of marriage and children Tim said he abandoned to chase his dreams has now moved to the forefront of his mind.
“I’m nothing special,” Mayer said, staring off into the distance and wiping moisture off his right cheek. “The most important thing is — you have a dream and a goal — but people say you aren’t good enough. You are. You can do it.
“I will never work a game in the NHL,” he continued. “That has taken me some time to get over. When I see (games) on television, I think, ‘I should be there.’ It’s been pride-swallowing. I failed, but I’m not a failure. I missed out on a goal and didn’t achieve it. But in the big picture, down the road, I will appreciate it.”
Dennis Mayer was not surprised to hear about his son’s decision to retire after next season, although he admits that he has told him to take time to think about the “big picture.”
Dennis agreed it’s a tough lifestyle. He has traveled all over the country as a referee and continues to do so now as a regional adviser for the NCAA, evaluating women’s basketball and narrowing down a final field for the upcoming March Madness.
But in Tim’s case, the money isn’t great, and he receives no benefits. Plus, his father says, he has nothing left to prove.
“He has reached a goal. He achieved it,” Dennis said about his son earning the Olympic nod. “I’m so proud of him. He’s worked so hard for this and done everything (USA Hockey) has asked. He is a good official. More importantly, a good person.
“It’s always good when good things happen to good people.”
He has also earned a new title, as far as Rob Mayer is concerned.
“I call him an Olympian,” Rob said. “All of the hard work and time he has donated, it’s a pretty big deal, and I know it means a lot to him. It should mean a lot to the country and anyone who has helped him along the way. For me, I couldn’t be more proud. It’s the pinnacle of a career. It’s pretty cool.”
Tim Mayer has to catch a plane. He is going to Syracuse, New York. Between stops in Binghamton and Hartford, Connecticut, he is officiating the American Hockey League All-Star game 55 miles to the east in Utica before resuming his regular-season schedule.
Airplane, rental car, hotel room, game. Repeat.
Tim is taking in every moment. He reiterates that the end is near, although he hopes to stay on with USA Hockey in some sort of off-ice capacity.
He is going to continue to make calls on the fly like he always has. Thinking too much gets you in trouble, he said with a smile. He'll be the first to tell you that he used to suffer from a hockey addiction. He loves the game. He always will.
But when he gets to South Korea, he said, hockey will be the last thing on his mind. He wants to see the country and watch other events. He wants to mingle with the world’s best athletes. What happens on that 200x100 sheet of ice is second nature.
“Hockey doesn’t define me,” he said. “It has given me so much, but it doesn’t define me.”
Contact Cody Tucker at (517) 377-1070 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @CodyTucker_LSJ.