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Between the Ice and a Hard Place--Life of an NHL Referee : They Don't Last Very Long--and Aren't Loved Much, Either

February 16, 1986|ROBERT FACHET | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When umpire Don Denkinger blew the call that many claim turned the World Series around, he was standing eight feet from first base with only one duty, to determine whether runner or ball reached the bag first.

A hockey referee is skating at high speed, trying both to watch the puck and dodge it, while avoiding swift skaters and simultaneously scrutinizing them in an effort to enforce a largely subjective rule book.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a referee's decision rarely invites universal acceptance. It is more common for both coaches to complain at the same time than for both to nod their heads in approval.

"My dream is for both coaches to shake my hand after a game and tell me I did a great job," said referee Ron Fournier. "But I know it will never happen."

John McCauley, a former referee who is the National Hockey League's assistant director of officiating, said: "It will never happen in the next life, either, because all the referees will be up there (pointing heavenward), and all the coaches will be down there (pointing in the opposite direction)."

Obviously, realism and a sense of humor are among the requirements for the men who fill a job that ranks right alongside traffic cop in most hockey fans' acceptance.

Hockey referees also need skating ability, an even temper, reasonable size and, most important, presence. Surprisingly, corrected vision is okay, although contact lenses are recommended.

"If you look like a ref, you'll get in the front door," McCauley said. "Presence will take you over the rough barriers until you get over the hump. How you control the emotional elements is half the battle. You can't be hot-headed, and you have to have a general empathy for the game and the personnel involved."

Most referees played hockey as youngsters, realized they could not progress to playing in the NHL and turned to officiating so they could stay with the sport.

"I played minor hockey through the juniors in Winnipeg and then went to university," said Andy Van Hellemond, a top referee who has officiated the Stanley Cup final the last nine years.

"I reffed the little ones while I played and at university I reffed at night. I enjoyed it and when expansion came along, I was fortunate to get a minor-league contract with the Western Hockey League.

"They had a lot of older players like Guyle Fielder and Connie Madigan and it was a good learning experience for a young ref. Then World Hockey started and some guys who were ahead of me moved up and it opened the doors. At 23 I was able to do 20 NHL games. The next year Bruce Hood hurt his knee and missed a full season and I was doing almost a full schedule. The same thing happened for other guys when I was hurt,they got their chance."

The road to the NHL was not smooth for Fournier, a goaltender in the Quebec Junior League who became an official in that organization to maintain contact with hockey. It is a tradition in many Quebec cities to throw eggs at the referee. In Fournier's case, they found even bigger objects.

"I was in Sorel one night and a guy took one of those fire extinguishers off the wall and threw it from the balcony," Fournier said. "It missed my head by 10 feet.

"Officials are a different breed of cat. Nothing comes easy and you have to be special people, one in 5,000, to go through all that abuse and those tough times to get to the NHL. It's so much easier to work at the NHL level, where you have professionals working with you, minor officials and linesmen, instead of guys working for the home team."

Some NHL coaches complain that certain referees are "homers," favoring the home team because of the crowd. Being human, officials no doubt can be swayed by a loud roar calling their attention to an alleged misdemeanor, but McCauley says that to see a true "homer" it is necessary to go off to hockey's boondocks.

"We used to go into some strange cities, and once in Memphis the referee saw the linesmen applauding after Memphis scored a goal," McCauley said. "He told them what their job was, but it didn't get through. He called an offside when they wouldn't, and after the game they got even, driving away and leaving him in the shower.

"The job is never easy. In Providence, they had chicken wire at the ends instead of glass. You'd jump onto the boards and grab the chicken wire to get out of the way and the fans would knock you down. The doors to the benches there opened onto the ice instead of inward and they'd wait till you skated by to make a change, so they could hit you."

Being an NHL referee can be hazardous, too. Van Hellemond, for example, makes it a practice to sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant and he keeps his knee free, just in case a visitor should turn belligerent.

"You learn in certain spots to keep your back to the wall," Van Hellemond said. "The players are never a problem, but irate fans can be."

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