A Ref’s Life: Tough injuries

I was a police officer with the OPP for 10 years and people used to ask me why I left the police force to go into refereeing and I said: ‘Pucks only hurt; bullets kill.’ That used to haunt me because it was almost the exact opposite – the puck almost killed.” – Don Van Massenhoven.

Much is written about toughness in the NHL; the players who fearlessly drop in front of pucks, speed into corners to negate icings and drive to a well-guarded net to earn a scoring opportunity.

But it doesn’t end with just the players. Referees are also in harm’s way and there have been a few freak injuries that would make even the most courageous skater cringe.

“I got a puck in the face in 2002,” said linesman Steve Miller. “It broke my orbital bone and the nose at the top. That was my biggest injury; I spent three nights in a New Jersey hospital. The first night they got me stabilized; I was in a trauma unit. Then they did the surgery the next day and they put a plate with seven screws in my face – they put my face back together.”

Much like the players who try and tough it out in playoff crunch time, Miller wanted to get back on the ice and didn’t miss as much time as you would think for such a horrific injury.

“I was back in about 12 days,” he said. “Actually, I shouldn’t say 12, it was about 15 days.”

Of course, refs do whatever they can to get out of the line of fire. When presiding over the best and fastest hockey players in the world, positioning is of the utmost importance and anticipation is a constant.

Officials are instructed not just on rules, but also on positioning from the first time they step on the ice in minor hockey. For referees, there are three spots to be in the offensive zone: at the net, at the bottom of the circle and at the hash marks. For linesmen, it’s just on the outside of the blueline to ensure they’re not at risk of blocking a clearing attempt out of the zone. Miller explained the one thing he tells all new officials is to leave yourself with options, because when you don’t, that’s when you get hit.

It’s not always easy, though, and quite often improvisation is necessary – and even that doesn’t guarantee you’ll always stay out of the way.

“When you see the play coming towards you, that’s when you start preparing; before the puck even gets close to you,” Miller explained. “You don’t always anticipate right, sometimes the puck bounces. You see a lot of players cycle the puck where they’ll go back – that’s the worst thing because the play is going up and all of a sudden they’re coming back at you.”

After his injury, Miller put on a visor and didn’t take it off again for about a year. Everything was going smooth and he didn’t have a second thought about putting it back on – until he watched referee Don Van Massenhoven get struck in a similar place. From then on, the visor has been a staple for Miller.

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Van Massenhoven was working a game between the Devils and Panthers in Florida in 2005 when a deflected shot hit him right between the eyes – even though he was standing off in the corner. The injury was classified as “catastrophic” and he was forced to undergo eight hours of surgery where seven plates and 35 screws were put in his face to repair both of his shattered orbital bones.

In retrospect, Van Massenhoven didn’t remember really thinking his career was over because when he woke up he still had his vision, even though the pain was immense.

“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.’

“But I was actually back in nine weeks. I worked my first game January 9th in Pittsburgh.”

The injury was a complete fluke because Van Massenhoven was perfectly positioned. As a referee in the end zone, he was watching the action in front of the net and though he knew where the puck was coming from and headed to, he wasn’t directly watching it. The next thing he knew it had hit him.

Van Massenhoven has worn a visor ever since, because he felt it was the least he could do for his family.

Like the players who battle, get in each others’ faces after whistles and hold on-ice grudges that build raucous rivalries, there is a competitive camaraderie that carries over to the officials, too. Even though tempers flare on the ice and disagreements abound, Van Massenhoven was amazed how the NHL community reached out after his horrible incident.

“Players, coaches, GMs phoned me and it was quite extraordinary moral support from the whole league basically,” he said. “Joe Nieuwendyk came to visit me the next morning. Actually, after that game the whole Devils team waited around to find out how I was doing.”

A Ref’s Life is a look at the world of officiating from the NHL level down through to the minor league level. We’ll talk to different referees from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of the profession. A Ref’s Life will appear bi-weekly through the NHL season.

Rory Boylen is’s web content specialist and a regular contributor to His blog will appears Tuesdays.

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