The Last Word

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:08 AM ET

Don Koharski is holding a celebration Saturday to commemorate his 1,500th appearance as an NHL referee. And while that might rate muted fanfare up north, it's a big deal in the Koharski house.

Koharski, a working stiff from Dartmouth, N.S., now lives in Tampa.

No coincidence then that number 1,500, a tilt between the hometown Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, is at home.

That way Koharski, who stopped drinking in 1989 because he wanted to last, can hoist a soft-drink toast to having done just that.

And sometime in the evening, someone will offer the finest of all toasts, the one for absent friends.

In extraordinarily rare circumstances, an official is allowed to choose with whom he works. And so on Saturday, even on the ice, Koharski will be surrounded by friends.

Koharski's professional and, let's face it, private life was shaped by legendary linesman John D'Amico and longtime director of officials John McCauley.

It was McCauley who mentored him, McCauley who stuffed equal measures of judgment and confidence back into Koharski the way Dorothy stuffed straw back into the Scarecrow.

"I was a sponge," Koharski said. "I saw the demeanour he had and the respect people had for him. And I thought to myself, 'That's who I want to be.' "

"John McCauley was Koho's mentor but John D'Amico was his father figure," said linesman Mark Pare, the last member of the quartet. Both are gone. They told D'Amico he had leukemia in November 2004 and he died seven months later at 67. McCauley's on-ice career was halted when he was punched from behind in a Manhattan eatery. McCauley hit a table and lost the use of an eye. He served as the NHL's director of officiating nonetheless.

McCauley died 17 years ago when a gall bladder operation went wrong. He was just 44.

So what could more fitting than asking McCauley's son Wes to share the refereeing and enlisting Angelo D'Amico to work the lines?

Wes never had planned on being a player, but one day, his general manager in Ft. Wayne, Ind., called him into the office.

"He told me he had been talking to some scouts and they all felt I would make a good referee," McCauley said. "Then he sent me down to the United League."

Young McCauley took the hint and soon learned how important his father was to so many people.

"You would come out of a hotel and a scout or coach would introduce himself to you and help you and give you advice because he knew my dad. But it wasn't just hockey people. Porters and bellmen would always tell me about my dad and how he treated everyone so well."

D'Amico was powerful and considerate and fiercely committed to his job.

He also was a legendary hypochondriac and one of the most superstitious members of a business saturated with superstitious people.

"Once he got cut above the eye and as he was getting up he said to the doctor, 'How many stitches, the guys are going to want to know?' The doctor said 13. He sat right back down. He said, 'You can either add one or take one out, but I'm not leaving here with 13 stitches.' And he didn't."

Each of the young men are the embodiment of their fathers.

"You can see it in Angelo, that Italian-bull type of build," Koharski said. "He's the spitting image of his dad."

"You look at Wes and you see John," Pare said.

Of course, one of the toughest things in life is to remember those absent friends without missing them like hell. And so, even along with Protestant champagne will come the odd bittersweet memory.

"A guy I grew up with said, 'It doesn't hit you when it happens, it hits you when the excitement dies down," Angelo D'Amico said. "With all that's going on and the preparations, I've been thinking a lot about him. It has been difficult."

Strapped for a gift for Koharski, D'Amico was rummaging through his dad's stuff. He came across the gamesheet from John's final game. He looked at the name of the referee. There in the corner, in bold strokes, was the name: Don Koharski.


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