Don Van Massenhoven, from Strathroy, Ont., will ref his 1,000th game when the Maple Leafs take on the Penguins Saturday Jan., 9, 2010. (Photo By Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
“It’s a big deal. That’s a lot of freaking games. 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.” – NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich, who hit his 1,500-game milestone in 2008-09.
When referee Don Van Massenhoven hits the ice Saturday night in Toronto, he will become the 19th NHL official to hit the 1,000-game mark.
It’s been a long journey since Van Massenhoven was first hired by the NHL; an offer he received over the phone while working a shift at his old job as an O.P.P officer in Pinery Park, near Grand Bend, Ont.
“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 they were going to hire me full-time and that was in July of 1992.”
Van Massenhoven was first brought into the NHL’s trainee program – designed to give refs professional experience at the International and American League levels before graduating to the NHL – when he was discovered working the 1990 Memorial Cup. For those few years it was a challenge to balance his time as an official and an officer of the law. A busy place in the summer, his detachment would generally be more quiet come winter and Van Massenhoven had the support of his colleagues, who would take shifts for him so he could go referee hockey.
“Of all the times of my life, those years – ’90, ’91, ’92 – were pretty crazy looking back,” he said.
And then, suddenly, the big call came one afternoon and Van Massenhoven was handed his first NHL assignment. In 1993, the NHL was in negotiations with its officials for a new contract and the two sides were called in for a meeting. Kerry Fraser, who was on the executive board at the time, wouldn’t be able to make his assigned game, so less than 24 hours before puck drop, Van Massenhoven was called in to officiate an Oilers-Bruins tilt at the old Boston Garden on Nov. 11, 1993.
And while the game went by without incident, you can bet the nerves were rattling for the rookie.
“Back then the referee pants we used to wear actually had zippers in them and my zipper broke just as I was putting them on to head out onto the ice,” Van Massenhoven laughed. “My fingers were trembling so bad I couldn’t fix it so (linesman) Ron Assletine fixed my zipper for me.”
During a 17-year career in the world’s best hockey league – and he even continued on the police force in the summer for two years after being hired by the NHL – Van Massenhoven has garnered a reputation as one of the most friendly, stand-up guys on the circuit. Labeled a “consummate professional” and “all-around good guy” by his peers, Van Massenhoven has been a great friend to all and a leader for the new guys.
“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.”
Referee Stephen Walkom also alluded to Van Massenhoven’s ability to make everyone feel comfortable and at ease, even if he himself wasn’t feeling his best. Recalling the vicious injury Van Massenhoven sustained when he was struck by a puck in 2005, Walkom said the guys had a little fun with their good friend as he was recuperating.
“He looked like a famous Canadian boxer – unfortunately for him it wasn’t one of the handsomest,” Walkom laughed. “He looked like George Chuvalo, so we called him ‘George’ for a while when he was recovering. Even when he wasn’t feeling good, he made you feel good.”
Heck, even the players have gained immense respect for the veteran official.
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.’ ”
There’s no end in sight for the Strathroy, Ont., native. And while the league honors him for all the hard work he has put in over the years, Van Massenhoven will be remembering all those who have helped him get to where he is today.
“I’m just reflecting on the people who have helped me achieve,” he explained. “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.”
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