Longtime NHL ref Van Massenhoven on Lemieux, lockouts and old-school hockey

This week on Rogers Hometown Hockey Tara Slone visits former NHL referee Don Van Massenhoven.

TORONTO — Don Van Massenhoven still remembers the first time his skates touched NHL ice, even after more than two decades as a referee in the league, and a half-decade more as an eye in the sky. He has it down to the day, in fact.

“November 11, 1993,” he recalls, “doing a game between the Oilers and Boston Bruins in the Boston Garden.”

Van Massenhoven can still picture the moment — the arena lights pouring down, music blaring, that looming wall of fans waiting anxiously for puck-drop.

“I’m at centre ice standing there, I think my knees were knocking I was so nervous. Because now I know, ‘I’m here.’”

He stuck around there for a fair while, becoming one of the most respected officials in the game over the course of his lengthy NHL tenure. But little compares to those early days first getting acclimated to the big-league chaos, being thrown into the fire to manage tempers in an era of pro hockey not known for restraint or reasonable resolutions.

“A year or two later, I ended up filling in for fellow referee Rob Shick who had been injured, and I had to go to Vancouver to ref the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver,” he says of a particularly wild affair during those early years in the show. “Mike Peca was playing for Vancouver, and he body-checked Teemu Selanne at centre ice before he got the puck.

“I think it ended up at about 250 minutes in penalties. Every stoppage was a fight, multiple fights. It was old-time hockey, shall we say. So that was my next awakening to, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’”

Of course, amid these all-too-often displays of brute strength, there were those who floated through with limitless skill.

“I remember the first time I had a game with Wayne Gretzky, playing for the L.A. Kings. They were in Dallas and I was skating around before, looking, and it just kind of hit me,” Van Massenhoven says. “I mean, I had already been in the league, but you’re still a fan of the game in a lot of ways. So skating around with Wayne Gretzky beside you … I had to pinch myself there.”

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Long before those days at ice level trying to manage the tornado of hacks and crosschecks hurled at The Great One, Van Massenhoven was an 18-year-old in Strathroy, Ont. — where Rogers Hometown Hockey touches down this weekend — trying to play his way onto the local Junior B club, the Strathroy Blades.

He earned the jersey and never left town. Forty years on, he’s still commuting from Strathroy for his current role with the league, serving as the NHL’s director of officiating operations and lending his expertise in the Situation Room.

In fact, when the league went dark during the 2004 lockout, leaving Van Massenhoven and the rest of his officiating brethren in limbo — and without a paycheque — it was his hometown that had his back.

An old friend called and offered Van Massenhoven a role selling cars at his Strathroy dealership. Not exactly in the wheelhouse of the towering referee — whose pre-NHL experience consisted of a decade of far higher stakes as an officer for the Ontario Provincial Police — but it would do.

“Honestly, I was kind of skeptical. I’m not a car guy per se … but I enjoyed it. And for a year, actually, it went really well — I think I was salesman of the month several times,” Van Massenhoven recalls with a laugh.

That was Strathroy. There to support their own, without a second thought. It was the same story in 2005, when Van Massenhoven was struck in the face by a puck during a game between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers, sending him to the emergency room for an 11-hour facial reconstruction surgery. Again, his community stepped up, picking up groceries for Van Massenhoven’s family, shovelling their driveway, driving family members to the airport — simply doing what they could.

Van Massenhoven felt that same bond among his NHL family, too, the league often seeming to be just as close-knit a community. The veteran official saw it during that same injury stint in Florida.

“I’m in the hospital the next day in intensive care — I just had an 11-hour surgery. I open up my eyes and there’s Joe Nieuwendyk, who played for the Florida Panthers. He had come to the hospital to visit me the next day. I can’t tell you how emotional that made me feel, because he took the time out of his day,” Van Massenhoven says.

“The funny part is he brought in a box of donuts, and I’m lying in intensive care. I barely can see, and I go, ‘Joe, I don’t think I can eat any donuts.’ He says, ‘Well, that’s okay, my kids ate half of them already.’”

That lighthearted brotherhood extended to the ice as well, even amid the tense moments of mid-game competition, with NHL careers and legacies on the line. One such memory has always stuck with Van Massenhoven — a now-famous moment shared with Mario Lemieux.

It was Le Magnifique’s second game back after his three-year retirement in the late ’90s. In front of the Penguins faithful at Mellon Arena, Lemieux appeared to score, only to see the goal negated by a Van Massenhoven mishap. “I blew the whistle too quickly,” he says. “I thought the goalie had it covered, [but] he didn’t. The puck squirted free, [and Pittsburgh] put it in the net.

“Mario, the gentleman he was — [as] fans are yelling and throwing stuff on the ice — he comes over and asks me what happened. I said, ‘I screwed up. I blew the whistle too quick.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll stand here beside you until they stop throwing stuff.’ And they did. I couldn’t believe it.”

It was a long road from Strathroy to that moment, standing side by side with one of the greatest talents the game has ever seen, right at the heart of hockey history. It wasn’t the first nor the last time Van Massenhoven found himself in such circumstances.

The veteran was there for the triple-overtime classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators in 2002, when Gary Roberts’s game winner levelled the second-round playoff series between the provincial rivals. He worked the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. He was out in the snow for the inaugural Winter Classic in Orchard Park, N.Y., in 2008, when Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner clinched the thing for the Penguins.

Marquee memories aren’t hard to come by in Van Massenhoven’s line of work. But at the end of the day, he says he’s simply grateful he got to touch down on that big-league ice at all.

“I’m like any Canadian kid. I wanted to play hockey,” he says. “Refereeing became a bit of a side hobby, but then to advance to the National Hockey League, the greatest league in the world, just — I can’t even really put it into words.

“Saying ‘a dream come true’ is an understatement. Because I don’t even think I dreamt it. I didn’t really believe it was possible.”

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