By Ross Forman
Charter Member Of The Illinois Hockey Hall Of Fame Also Was Goal-Judge For The Chicago Wolves
Robert “Bob” Lilla, a member of the inaugural class of inductees into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame (Official’s Category), passed away on Thursday, Dec. 14. He was a longtime Northbrook resident and was 86.
“Winston Churchill once said, ‘We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.’ Bob Lilla was truly one of those special individuals who gave back to the game of hockey more than he ever received,” said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey. “Not only was he one of the best on-ice officials in Illinois for a long time, he also was a man who gave back to the game, mentoring young officials for several decades. He taught at countless officiating seminars and served in numerous IHOA volunteer positions. Bob was a person who made an effort every day to improve our game. He will be sorely missed by all.”
Lilla was inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame (Official’s Category) in 2002, along with Jim Kurtz, Chet Stewart and Fred Pye.
“Bob was an icon in Illinois officiating for many years, and a mentor to so many young officials. He was one of the pioneers (who) started IHOA in the early-1970s,” said longtime official Jack Raslawski.
“Bob certainly was someone who gave me my start (in officiating) and always held a special place in my heart,” said David LaBuda, the USA Hockey National Referee-in-Chief. “He had great knowledge of the game, rules and officiating, and more so, he was just a great human being.”
Lilla, who officiated for about 30 years, also was one of the first recipients of the annual Chet Stewart Award, established by USA Hockey in 2000 to recognize an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the USA Hockey Officiating Education Program during many years of service to the hockey community as an official and volunteer. The award is named in honor of the late Chet Stewart, one of the founders of the Officiating Education Program and a longtime USA Hockey volunteer.
Raslawski noted that Lilla “helped design and implement many officiating programs.”
“Bob was an instructor and always liked working with young officials, to teach them some of the skills that are so important for success as an official,” Raslawski said. “Bob was the IHOA registrar for (more than) 10 years in the day before the Internet and everything was handled via U.S. Postal Service, hand-stuffing envelopes and tracking everyone’s registration.
“Bob was a true gentleman.”
LaBuda added, “He was a very good teacher (of officiating) off the ice; I learned an awful lot from him.”
Lilla served as an off-ice official for the Chicago Wolves – and the Wolves will honor Lilla on Saturday, Dec. 16, with a moment of silence before the team’s home game against the Iowa Wild.
“Bob derived a significant amount of pleasure from helping young officials progress into higher levels of hockey,” said former official Chad Weiner. “His passion for officiating the game is unmatched. He was always in your corner trying to make you better. He was always kind and constructive in his approach.
“I will never forget the numerous conversations with him before and after taking the ice at Wolves games. When I got off the ice, he was always the first to give you a wink or a pat on the back, particular after a tough night.”
The Wolves honored Lilla last season during the playoffs as a Hometown Hero. Lilla was an Army Private First Class in the Korean War. He took an Honor Flight this past May 10 through the non-profit organization that honors America’s veterans for their sacrifices by transporting them to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at memorials.
Wayne Messmer joined Lilla on the Honor Flight and said it was “One of the best days of his life.” Messmer added that Lilla was “very proud” of his military background.
“He was a legendary character, who was loyal and professional,” Messmer said. “As a friend, he was tremendous, someone you could count on 100 percent.”
Bob Rundgren, of Villa Park, was the supervisor of off-ice officials for the Wolves from 2000-2015. Lilla was the team’s west-end goal judge from 1994 until earlier this season, when he was injured in a fall at his home.
“Bob always had a smile on his face, no matter what. He always had a great attitude and was a mentor to many with the Wolves; he was the gold standard of being an official, a father-figure to so many.
“Even at 86, he was the best goal-judge in the business.”
The Wolves issued a statement, saying: “Bob Lilla was an important part of Wolves home games for so many years as the goal judge at the west end of the ice. More than that, he was a good friend and mentor and shining example to so many people in our organization. He would arrive early for every game and do his job right every night. We will miss his stories and his presence and his professionalism.”
Sue Varon Spector, a 2006 inductee into the Official’s Category of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame, said Lilla “believed in me at a time when women were not accepted in hockey.”
Lilla also volunteered for years with the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association (AHIHA).
Lilla was married for 53 years to Nancy Lilla nee Kreruzer, who passed away at age 82 in 2012.
Sjoukje Brown, the Central District Referee-in-Chief, shared the news of Lilla’s passing on Facebook, which naturally brought a flood of responses from the hockey community – from across the U.S., not just locally.
“Bob Lilla was instrumental in helping develop and implement many training programs for young and new officials in the state of Illinois. He spent many years as an instructor, mentor, and active official in our state. I can remember working games with Bob when I was a new official, and learning so much about positioning and how to communicate effectively with coaches and players.
“Bob always had a smile on his face, and loved our game so much that he knew good communication with the bench in a game was essential to having success. A few years later, when I started assisting with seminars, he and I had a chance to instruct together many times. I loved working with Bob because he was a true team player, and made participants in class feel at ease yet engaged. I will miss his smile and big hugs every time I ran into him.”
Lilla was one of the first officials to welcome Ken Reinhard when he moved to Chicago in 1985 from New York. “We are all better for knowing him. He gave all of us so much of himself,” Reinhard said.
Bob Cunningham, the former Central District Referee-in-Chief, said Lilla “was a true gentleman and a credit to officiating.”
Lilla officiated the Chicago Blackhawks training camp in the early-1980s.
Steve Maltais, who played for the Wolves, said on Facebook: “So sad, great man.”
Tom Malmquist noted, “He turned on the light for some of the biggest goals in Wolves history.”
Raslawski added, “He will be sorely missed by many, and his contributions to our game helped shape where we are today and he will always be remembered.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.