MONTREAL -- Wally Harris, a former NHL referee who in retirement became the League’s first Director of Officials and subsequently an influential, highly respected supervisor of game crews, died Thursday in a Montreal-area hospital following a short illness.

He was 88.

Harris refereed 953 regular-season games and another 85 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs between 1966-83, working Stanley Cup Final series in 1973, 1975, 1976, 1980, 1982 and 1983. He also officiated in two NHL All-Star Games -- the League’s 28th in 1975 at the Montreal Forum, and the 34th in 1982 at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland.

The native of Montreal-suburban Lachine took ill during a recent trip to Florida. He returned home and was hospitalized in late March, remaining in the facility’s care until his passing.

“With a personality that would light up the room, Wally Harris was respected and revered by all officials he managed,” said Stephen Walkom, NHL Senior Vice-President and Director of Officiating. “There was an assuredness and confidence that he instilled in his people and an absolute love for the game of hockey.

“Wally understood the importance of officials in hockey and worked non-stop to pass along his great wisdom to the next generations. When he needed to be serious and get his point across, he did this exceptionally well, with both team executives and the rank and file on the ice.”

Wally Harris 5

Referee Wally Harris calls the play dead, the puck in Toronto goalie Jacques Plante’s glove, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 17, 1970. New York Rangers’ Dave Balon (center) and Bill Fairbairn look for a rebound behind Toronto defenseman Brian Glennie.

Harris’ 17-season career wearing stripes and arm bands is likely best remembered for two games:

The historic 1975 New Year’s Eve 3-3 nailbiter at the Montreal Forum between the Canadiens and touring Central Red Army club team from the Soviet Union; and the Jan. 24, 1974 game at Boston Garden between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Black Hawks in which he assessed Bruins star Bobby Orr a misconduct in the final minute of a 2-1 Chicago win, touching off a near-riot by enraged Bruins fans.

The Canadiens-Red Army game was historic in that it showcased the best squad in Russia and the supreme NHL club that was on its way to winning four consecutive Stanley Cup championships as the decade’s most dominant team.

The 3-3 tie is referred to by many as the greatest game ever played, though in reality that’s a romantic exaggeration. It was terribly one-sided in favor of the dominant Canadiens; the home team was stoned by Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who made 35 saves against the 10 shots turned aside by Canadiens’ Ken Dryden.

Wally Harris 1

Referee Wally Harris watches Central Red Army goalie Vladislav Tretiak make a save on Dec. 31, 1975, at the Montreal Forum, Canadiens forward Guy Lafleur looking for a rebound past defenseman Valeri Vasilyev.

Tretiak had played brilliantly at the Forum on Sept. 2, 1972, in a 7-3 victory for a Soviet select team against NHL all-stars representing Canada, Game 1 of the landmark, eight-game Summit Series a stunning upset. His performance on New Year’s Eve three years later cemented his reputation in Montreal, a city which loves him to this day.

Harris was chosen to referee the New Year’s Eve game, the NHL’s Claude Bechard and Russia’s Yuri Karandin working the lines, and 15 years later recalled the stress of the night.

“About two or three minutes into the game, I made a call and Yvan Cournoyer got very upset,” Harris told Dick Irvin Jr. for the latter’s 1991 book “The Habs: An Oral History of the Montreal Canadiens, 1940-1980.”

“He skated up to me ranting and raving all over the place. I said, ‘Take it easy. Settle down. There’s pressure on everybody here tonight.’ Cournoyer said, ‘I know. But we have to beat these (expletive).’

“What I remember most of all is Tretiak. When you’re two or three feet away from a goalie you get a good look at him. That night, I never saw him make the first move. I can’t remember a goaltender who could stare down the guys the way he did that night.

“It was one of the top games I ever worked.”

That Harris had survived to lace his skates that night was a minor miracle. Twenty-three months earlier, he had tossed Orr with 50 seconds left to play in Boston and would need a security escort back to his hotel.

Orr had rushed into Chicago’s end in a bid to tie the game and was sent flying by Black Hawks defenseman Bill White, a split second after an offside was whistled.

Wally Harris 2

Central Red Army goalie Vladislav Tretiak keeps a close eye on Montreal Canadiens forwards Jacques Lemaire (25) and Guy Lafleur on Dec. 31, 1975, at the Montreal Forum. Referee Wally Harris follows the action in the background.

“They came after me,” Harris told Montreal Gazette writer Glenn Cole in an April 1981 feature. “No one realized that an offside had been called. Anyway, Bobby got excited and got himself thrown out of the game.”

The Bruins -- especially Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson -- had been in Harris’ face throughout the game for officiating that they charged was blatantly one-sided. Fans who rained garbage on the ice conveniently ignored the fact that Esposito had been foiled on four breakaways that night by his brother, Tony, in Chicago’s net.

It took more than an hour to play the final 50 seconds with anything that wasn’t nailed down, and some things that were, showering Garden ice.

Harris was barely into his hotel room when the phone rang.

“It was Bobby Orr,” he said. “He asked me if I got back all right.”

For all of the chaos, Harris loved being a referee.

“The money is good and so is the pension plan,” he said in a February 1975 Los Angeles Times story on NHL officials. “But to me, the satisfaction of a job well done and earning the respect of players and coaches are more important.

“Take the best players in the world and put them out on the ice. If you don’t have a referee to run the show properly, you don’t have much of a game. If he called every infraction, you wouldn’t have many players on the ice or fans in the stands. If he let them go wild, it would be a riot. Being able to do the job right is rewarding.”

Wally Harris 4

Referee Wally Harris was among those from the NHL invited to a White House luncheon on Feb. 8, 1982, by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Born Nov. 23, 1935, Wallis “Wally” Harris came to refereeing by accident, a decent junior player in the Montreal area without much hope of finding work in the six-team NHL. The Canadiens offered him a $4,500 contract to play in their farm system, but the future zebra had other ideas.

“I was playing senior hockey a couple nights a week and a friend coaching a midget team asked me to help him out,” he recalled. “Next thing I knew, I was a referee.”

Before long, he’d caught the eye of Carl Voss, then the NHL’s referee-in-chief, and was offered a post in the American Hockey League. Working for a friend at a Montreal chemical company, Harris asked his boss for a $25 raise and was turned down. A career in stripes was born.

With a couple of years’ seasoning in the minors, Harris would skate onto Forum ice for the Dec. 11, 1966 game between the Canadiens and visiting New York Rangers, Walter Atanas and Bob Frampton his linesmen. His first of 953 regular-season NHL games was a 4-2 win for the visitors, Montreal’s John Ferguson and New York’s Jim Neilson the first players he’d call for fighting majors.

Seventeen years later, in his final season, Harris was shadowed by Toronto Star writer Wayne Parrish for a day-in-the-life story.

It detailed the veteran referee flying into Toronto from his Montreal-suburban home on the morning of the Dec. 8, 1982, game between the Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks, having earlier that day tended to his sideline distributorship business for sand-blasting abrasives and pollution-control devices. Harris was earning $67,500 salary as a referee, supplemented by $15,000 in playoff wages.

The game was over in a brisk two hours and 26 minutes, about 15 minutes shorter than the average game that season. “Last Call Wally,” Harris was affectionately dubbed by thirsty reporters.

Wally Harris 3

Referee Wally Harris was by his hometown Montreal Gazette in an April 25, 1981, profile story.

The Canucks skated off Maple Leaf Gardens ice with a 7-3 victory, slumping Toronto jeered by fans as they dropped into the cellar of the Norris Division and last place in the 21-team NHL.

“Awful game,” Harris told Parrish. “A couple of times, I had to pinch myself to stay awake.”

It was so dull, in fact, that Canucks clenched fist Dave “Tiger” Williams had four shots on goal and no penalty minutes.

Harris retired at season’s end, his final appearance May 12, 1983, in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final a 6-3 win for the New York Islanders against the Oilers in Edmonton.

That summer he was named the NHL’s first Director of Officials by League President John Ziegler. In press boxes from 1987 through 2002, he would work more than 1,500 games as supervisor of officials, from 1989-99 serving as assistant to League director Bryan Lewis.

Early in the 1990 playoffs, Harris predicted the future while considering the disputed goal calls that had punctuated the first few games of the postseason.

“We’d love to see video review,” he mused out loud. “Down to a man, referees would like that jurisdiction out of our hands. I wouldn’t want it for penalties because that’s a judgment call. But goals have nothing to do with judgment.”

Video review began the following season.

Harris will be remembered for his poise no matter the pressure of the game and the mentoring he provided officials who have called games at every level.

His friends will also recall a legendary sense of humor. Where many arena organists sarcastically serenaded officials with “Three Blind Mice,” Harris loved the tune, so much so that he had three blindfolded mice printed on the corner of his business card when he left the game.

“Wally will be best remembered for his hearty laugh and infectious personality,” the NHL’s Walkom said. “It put all at ease while ensuring everyone he encountered felt good about being alive and in the game of hockey.”

Top photo: Wally Harris in an NHL portrait, and a Vancouver Sun story reporting the referee’s 1983 retirement.