WHEELING - If 30 years ago someone would have mentioned Hall of Fa ... . That's about as far as the statement would have gone before Joe Ernst cut them off.
You see, Ernst is an everyday Joe who doesn't think about his career as an ECHL referee in boastful terms. He would much rather consider it a fun time in his life, one that he looks back on without regret and says he would do again without hesitation.
Ernst may not think of himself as being better than the next guy, but the ECHL Hall of Fame Selection Committee certainly does. That's why it has made the Wheeling resident the inaugural member of the Referee/Linesmen wing of the Hall, to which he will be inducted during a luncheon ceremony a week from today in Bakersfield, Calif., as part of All-Star Game festivities
''It's pretty overwhelming, to be honest,'' Ernst said. ''I don't go around and brag about the career and everything else.''
But his wife, Donna, does. Ernst says she's been telling everyone she sees - even those she doesn't know - and has earned that right because she was the one sleeping alone all those nights while Joe was in far-away places like Alaska and Idaho.
''I told my family and my friends knew,'' Ernst said. ''Other than that, she's been the one who is bragging it up.
''It's an unbelievable honor and puts all the miles and being gone, it makes it all worth it.''
Now in his second season as the Director of Officiating for the ECHL, Ernst donned the orange armband for 16 years in a career that allowed him to officiate a league-record 1,061 games, including participation in nine finals series - three when it was the Riley Cup, and six in what is now known as the Kelly Cup.
He was a member of the NHL Trainee Program for seven seasons and worked preseason games in the National Hockey League, as well as games in the American Hockey League and International Hockey League.
''My philosophy was to have fun and make sure the game was officiated evenly,'' Ernst said. ''With an official, there was always going to be someone not happy with you.
''You go back to the old days, the old buildings. Toledo, Columbus, it could get pretty wild in some of those buildings.''
Ernst recalls several memorable nights in uniform, back in the day when line brawls were still prevalent. Included was a game that pitted bitter rivals Greensboro and Hampton Roads.
''They had a real heated game a couple nights earlier, and after the national anthem each team had four screwballs on the ice,'' Ernst said. ''About 4 seconds in we had a brawl, and the first period took an hour and a half.''
And of course, there was the night he received his indoctrination during his first game.
''My first game, 1991 in Columbus. Guys didn't have to skate to the bench after intermission back then,'' he said. ''One guy skated over and suckered a guy and we had a brawl.
''At that point I'm 20 years old and thinking 'what did I get myself into?' ''
What he was getting into was a love affair, for which he is eternally grateful. Perhaps the neatest part of the entire thing is that he was hired by Patrick J. Kelly, who is the same man that called to inform Ernst of his selection. Kelly is the head of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
Ernst said he hopes that players he officiated know ''that I came to work every day.
''We had fun, that I was easy to get along with and was prepared to do the job.
''We had fun doing our job.''
Congratulations, Joe - one of the classiest guys I've had the pleasure of meeting in this business.
Wheeling fans may have noticed that we have begun running profiles of the team's players. We'll continue to do so every day the Nailers are not in action later that night, until we have profiled each guy.
Where will you be able to find the profile in our section? That's easy, as we'll put it together with the NHL Roundup.
So if you're looking for hockey, it will all be together for your convenience.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net.