BELLINGHAM - Finally, a hockey referee got some respect from the players.
Two days before refereeing at the Bellingham Sportsplex, Willie Cove was first officer on a flight Monday, Oct. 15, from Vancouver, B.C., to Sydney, Australia. He spotted a missing yacht off the coast of Australia from the cockpit of the Air Canada Boeing 777.
Adrift for more than a week until Cove saw him in heavy seas some 270 miles from shore, the boater eventually was rescued by police.
If the hockey crowd at the Sportsplex was impressed, the group had a funny way of showing it.
"They were all ribbing me last night," Cove said in a phone interview on Thursday. "They were saying, 'You went from zero to a hero.'"
"We all had a good laugh about it. Afterwards, having a couple beers, they all wanted to find out what really went on."
Air Canada Flight 33 was almost to its destination at 8:15 a.m. Sydney time on Tuesday when the four pilots got a call from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Could they help find a disabled yacht?
The pilots had to calculate whether they had enough fuel to change course and descend from cruising altitude to 3,700 feet above the ocean - and then go back up.
"They gave us rough coordinates where they thought he was," Cove said. "We worked it out. We could safely go over there and look around for a little bit."
It was the proverbial needle in a haystack, Cove said. Using binoculars or the naked eye, passengers and crew were looking for a 36-foot white boat among whitecaps as high as 13 feet.
Cove saw it first.
"It was one of those things that caught my eye," he said. "We wagged the wings, and he knew he had been spotted."
Several passengers also saw the boat, Air Canada said in a report on its website. Far from being unhappy about the 90-minute delay in their 151/2-hour flight, passengers were thrilled to have taken part in a search and rescue.
"After we found him, everyone was giving high fives," Cove said.
By Wednesday night, Cove had reverted from pilot to referee.
"We pretty well live at the Sportsplex," said Cove, whose son and daughter play indoor soccer there. Cove is also a goalie in the Sportsplex's elite hockey league.
A Canada native with U.S. citizenship, Cove is known around the Sportsplex as an outgoing, friendly guy who hawks Girl Scout cookies and often has to run straight from the rink to catch his next flight.
"Sometimes we have to find substitute goalies when he's out of town, but when he's in town he's always here," said Marc Ronney, the Sportsplex's general manager.
"Pilots just have interesting stories," said Brian Sibley, a hockey player in the over-40 league who only knows the pilot as "Willie."
"I don't think people even know that pilots can fly a plane that low and actually help out," Sibley said.
Few planes could have gone on that search, having already burned more than 14 hours of fuel. And Flight 33 wouldn't have been around to help if it hadn't already been delayed 30 minutes by storms near Hawaii.
"From our point of view it's just part of our job. It's a maritime thing," Cove said. "The stars were aligned."