Puck alters NHL ref's outlook

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Outwardly, Don Van Massenhoven has changed a bit. Getting your face crushed by a puck will do things like that.

Inwardly, the National Hockey League ref from Strathroy has changed, too.

Nobody comes back from what he experienced without an altered outlook.

Perhaps you recall the gory details. The guy everyone calls Van Mass was hit flush in the face by a deflected shot on Nov. 23. Talk about rolling craps. It was game No. 711 in his career.

Getting nailed in the head by a puck travelling nearly 160 km/h is one of those concerns players and officials submerge. It's there, just as it is with the pitcher being beaned by a line drive, but it's subjugated, brought to the surface by an incident such as that suffered by Van Massenhoven or earlier, by Toronto coach Pat Quinn, Leafs captain Mats Sundin, Pittsburgh's John Leclair and others in varying severity.

None was as severe as Van Massenhoven's.

The blast drove his nose back to the point the septum was nearly touching his brain, the bone below one eye was broken and his forehead was shattered.

That's most of the damage. Now, the repairs.

Seven titanium plates were required, along with tissue taken from his abdomen, to rebuild his face. There's always a bit of inner rebuilding, too.

Like those bomber crews returning in tatters in the Second World War, he was right back in action the moment he'd healed.

And like them, there was some trepidation upon his return three weeks and a dozen games ago.

"There was no fear factor but I was on pins and needles," Van Massenhoven said.

It's not as though he's a stranger to peril. Ten years as an OPP officer put him in some precarious positions.

Much has been written about the special nature of the hockey community, the loosely defined patchwork of groups and associations that comprise the game. It is not a myth, it exists as strongly in the sport as in any other -- and Van Massenhoven can testify to the fact.

League officials immediately flew to Florida to be at his side. Letters, phone calls and e-mails rolled in.

And when he came back, he was greeted warmly. Imagine that, a ref getting a welcome from players.

"Every game, players have made kind comments," Van Massenhoven said. "It gives you a pretty warm feeling."

Does he approach the game any differently? No. Does he handle himself differently? Yes.

Aside from donning a face mask (along with many other officials in the aftermath of his accident), he doesn't do anything he didn't do before the awful mishap -- other than maintain an even higher level of alertness.

"You're supposed to watch the play, not the puck, but I'm more aware of the puck now," he said.

He's had one zip over his head since his return. The 6-foot-6 ref ducked.

"It didn't bother me," he said.

Van Massenhoven is back, as solid as ever, and wiser.

Terming this season eventful for the likeable official understates the case. Just two days before his own accident, he was handling the game in which Detroit defenceman Jiri Fischer collapsed on the bench. His heart had stopped.

Fischer was revived but is not likely to play again. Maybe that event so close to his own is a counterpoint for Massenhoven. He is able to continue.

Coming up is a positive event. Van Massenhoven will officiate in the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

He's among four refs (Paul Devorski, Dennis LaRue, Dan Marouelli). The NHLers will join six International Ice Hockey Federation referees.

A Stanley Cup final assignment for Van Mass would be an appropriate exclamation point to his season.


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