After 23 years, Van Massenhoven will be hanging up the orange armbands.
Friday night in Detroit, referee Don Van Massenhoven will work his 67th game of the season, number 1,366 of his career. That game will also be the final time he pulls the striped jersey over his head in the NHL.
Starting in Stripes
Van Massenhoven, an Ontario native, began his officiating career back in 1975, when he was just 15. As he finished school, he continued to officiate, starting on lines and later moving to referee. When he went to work for the Ontario Provincial Police, he kept up his night job as a referee.
“I loved the Ontario Provincial Police the 10 years I was there. I never thought I could be so fortunate as to have two amazing jobs in my life. They were two careers, not jobs,” he told the London Free Press.
Policeman by day and hockey zebra by night, Van Massenhoven kept progressing up the officiating ladder. He was working regularly in the OHL. As a 25-year-old rookie referee, Van Massenhoven was tapped to handle the 1990 Memorial Cup. (The eventual Cup-winning Oshawa Generals boasted a future first-overall pick on their roster: Eric Lindros.)
Balancing his life – split between zebra stripes and a badge – wasn’t easy. “Of all the times of my life, those years – ’90, ’91, ’92 – were pretty crazy looking back,” he said in The Hockey News. It was while Officer Van Massenhoven was on duty that he received a call from the NHL that would change his life.
“Wally Harris was the director of development and he looked after the minor league guys,” Van Massenhoven said. “He called me at the station to say [the NHL was] going to hire me full-time. That was in July of 1992.”
Donning the Stripes in the NHL
Van Massenhoven’s first game was November 11, 1993. Referee Kerry Fraser was set to work the game, but was handling contract negations with the NHL on behalf of the NHL Officials Association. With less than 24 hours notice, Van Massenhoven was asked to fill in. The rookie referee headed to Boston, where the Bruins hosted the Edmonton Oilers.
“My knees were knocking,” he said, as reported in the Toronto Sun. “I was sent there on short notice. My first NHL game and the zipper on my referee pants broke. I was so nervous my fingers were shaking so much I couldn’t fix it. Ron Asselstine, one of the linesmen, had to fix it for me.
“I remember being out on the ice during the anthem, looking around and seeing Ray Bourque standing there. It was the old Boston Garden and I’m thinking ‘Wow, I’m actually here.’”
The Bruins won the game 5-1. Van Massenhoven handed out 56 minutes in penalties, including four fights.
After the final horn, Van Massenhoven was discussing the game with the linesmen in the officials’ room when they were interrupted. “There was a knock on our dressing room door afterwards and [Boston GM] Harry Sinden came in and called it one of the best officiated games he’d seen,” Van Massenhoven laughed. “So I’m feeling good, but the other guys said ‘just wait’ and sure enough a week later I’m doing a Boston game and Sinden is screaming at me.”
In 1995, Van Massenhoven officiated a penalty-filled battle between the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets. After a game-ending hit from Mike Peca on Teemu Selanne, the teams piled up 248 combined penalty minutes
“I knew Domi from junior and there’s a YouTube clip where he’s yelling at me,” Van Massenhoven said. “He’s saying ‘You want a war? You got a f—— war.’ You feel you lost control but in reality all you are doing is calling penalties. I remember [NHL Head of Officials] Bryan Lewis calling me the next day and saying, ‘You did a great job. You held it together.’”
The Terrible Week of 2005
On November 21, 2005, Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer collpased on the bench. Don Van Massenhoven was there, his former police training coming in handy as he assisted the medical responders.
Three days later, Van Massenhoven would have a medical emergency of his own.
“Never saw the puck, no chance to flinch,” he said of the deflected puck that shattered his face. He described the incident in detail to Canada.com (You might want to skip this section if you’ve got a weak stomach):
“I remember my face exploding, head exploding. I didn’t see the puck. I just felt this rush in my head and an explosion and warmth — I guess that was the blood. I remember falling to the ice thinking to myself: what the heck was that. It was like my head exploded from the inside out.
“Then I actually did think: Do I have any eyes? I opened my eyes and could see the blood on my hands and closed them and just held on. I never went unconscious. I remember Bill Murray, the trainer with the Devils, his voice was there in seconds and … this gets emotional … he just talked me through it.”
A neurosurgeon and two plastic surgeons operated on him for seven hours, and VanMassenhoven spent three days in an intensive care unit. Fat tissue was removed from his abdomen and used to rebuild his forehead.
“My nose was disintegrated,” he said. “They actually said my nose — you can run a finger right across it [from cheek to cheek] — was gone. I have seven plates in my face — five in my forehead, one in my nose. Both orbital bones were broken. “
As the saying goes, hockey players are tough. So are hockey referees. One of Van Massenhoven’s first questions was when he would be able to return to the ice.
“I had just been announced to work the ’06 Olympics, so I remember asking the surgeon ‘When can I go back after the surgery?’ ” Van Massenhoven said. “And he’s like, ‘Well, we’ll worry about that next season.’ I said ‘Well no, no I have the Olympics’ and when I told him they were in February he said ‘Not a chance.’ I was actually back in nine weeks. I worked my first game January 9th in Pittsburgh.”
Van Massenhoven not only made it back to the NHL, he made it to the Olympics in Torino.
Van Massenhoven hit the 1,000 games mark on January 9, 2010, when the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Maple Leafs in Toronto. The veteran referee was honored before the game:
“I’m just reflecting on the people who have helped me achieve,” he said after the game. “I go back to my police days and all my colleagues who would cover shifts for me so I could go officiate hockey, all my fellow officials in the OHA and the OHL, my family. So many people who were always rooting for me and helping me get to that level.”
An NHL Legacy
With nearly two decades of NHL service under his belt, Van Massenhoven has earned quite a bit of respect around the league.
“You [get nervous] when you first start, but that’s the joy of being around this long … There’s really a transition. I’d say about the 15-year mark they left me alone, they give me total respect,” Van Massenhoven said.
When Mario Lemieux made his return to the NHL after a three-year retirement in 2000, Van Massenhoven was working the Magnificent One’s second game back; a home game against Ottawa. A Lemieux shot was stopped by the Ottawa goalie and as Van Massenhoven blew his whistle, thinking the puck had been caught, he watched helplessly as the disc trickled over the line. No goal.
“Needless to say the fans were pretty upset,” Van Massenhoven said. “Mario actually came right over and said ‘Don, what happened?’ I said ‘I blew the whistle too quick, I lost sight of it.’ And he said ‘OK, I’ll stand here next to you and maybe they’ll stop throwing stuff.’ ”
His fellow officials also respect his long-time dedication to the league.
“It’s a big deal. That’s a lot of freaking games,” said NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich, of Van Massenhoven’s 1000-game milestone. “It’s sort of a recognition of a lot of games, a lot of hard work, a lot of travel your family puts up with. One-thousand is big for a referee. He really is just a class guy the NHL should be proud to have on the ice because he really does a fantastic job.”
“When you bring up his name it’s like, ah, I love working with Donny,” said referee Kelly Sutherland, “because from Day 1 when you’re trying to get your feet wet he just made you feel so comfortable and he truly is one of the class acts of the league.”
Retirement? What Retirement?
Van Massenhoven might be hanging up the skates, but he’s not getting out of hockey. He’s currently team president of the Greater Ontarion Junior Hockey League’s Strathroy Rockets.
“I love the game,” he said. “Hockey has been my whole life. When I’m home, I watch games. Hockey is a part of me.”
It’s said, when a game is played without penalties, that the officials have put the whistles in their pockets. On Friday night, after the final horn sounds between the Sabres and Red Wings, Don Van Massenhoven will pocket his whistle for good.
May you enjoy a long, happy retirement, Don, one free of whistles. Do your best to stay out of the penalty box.
- Memorial Cup in Hamilton – 1990
- Calder Cup Finals (AHL) – 1992
- Stanley Cup Finals (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007). Notable games, per NHLOfficials.com:
- Game 7 of the 2004 Conference Quarter-Finals between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs
- Game 7 of the 2006 Conference Semi-Finals between the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Calgary Flames
- NHL All-Star Game – 2002
- Challenge Cup (Toronto Maple Leafs vs. club teams from Sweden/Finland) – 2003
- World Cup of Hockey – 2004
- Winter Olympics – Torino, 2006
- NHL Winter Classic – 2008