While National Hockey League teams get to play half of their 82 regular season games at home, the same cannot be said for the league’s officials. The NHL likes for its officials to live in or around one of its member teams, so every now and then the referees and linesmen get an opportunity to work what would qualify as a home game for them.
When referee Mike Hasenfratz steps onto the Bridgestone Arena ice for Thursday night’s game between the Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, he will be working in the city he has called home for the last 11 years. A game in Nashville means Hasenfratz will get a break from his normal routine of rotating airports and hotels and allow him to spend a night or two in his own bed.
The season prior to being promoted to a full-time NHL referee, Hasenfratz worked 34 NHL games. One of the cities he worked in was Nashville and he liked what he saw. When the call came that he was in the NHL full-time, Hasenfratz needed to find a place to live, so he contacted Nashville’s then Associate Head Coach Brent Peterson for advice. Hasenfratz knew Peterson from their time together in the Western Hockey League when Peterson was the Head Coach of the Portland Winterhawks.
“He suggested the Franklin area,” Hasenfratz said. “The school systems are good. He spoke very highly of it, so I chose to live here, and I haven’t regretted it. I am in my 11th year here now.”
Relief from the rigors or the road is a welcome one even if it is just for a short period of time, but Hasenfratz is thankful that he has the opportunity to actually be back out working in the different NHL cities again. For the last two years, this was not the case.
Five years ago while working out, Hasenfratz noticed that his heart rate was higher than normal. The league has the officials wear heart rate monitors when they put them through their physical tests, so Hasenfratz got in the habit of wearing one each time he exercised.
“So I went to a doctor and said something is wrong,” he said. “They sent me to a cardiologist where they did an echocardiogram. They determined that my descending aorta was wider than it should be. The aorta I guess is 1.7 cm on average and mine was 2.3cm.”
His doctors told him the numbers were not enough to cause concern and that they would continue to monitor his status. A couple of years later, the descending aorta was measured at 5.3 cm.
“If it busts, you die,” Hasenfratz said. “So he said stop everything, and I ended up going to the Cleveland Clinic. They replaced my aorta with a synthetic aorta.”
The recovery from that surgery was long and meant that he would miss all of the 2009-10 season.
“There were lots of times I was wondering what I was doing,” Hasenfratz said. “When I first had the operation, I couldn’t lift anything over ten pounds for three months. I felt useless there for quite a while.”
A year away from a job you love is difficult, but a setback in Hasenfratz’ recovery cost him the 2010-11 season as well. Doctors discovered a large volume of postoperative fluid around his heart. To drain the fluid, Hasenfratz needed another surgical procedure.
“So again, I had to wait for my ribs to heal and then start training again and try to get back to it,” he said.
Part of getting back at it involved traveling to Buffalo for monthly training and testing sessions with the NHL Officials’ athletic trainer. While in Buffalo, Hasenfratz talked with former NHLer Teppo Numminen.
Toward the end of his playing career, Numminen was forced off of the ice after requiring open-heart surgery to correct a problem with a valve. He returned to the ice for one more season following his procedure and is now an assistant coach with the Sabres.
“I would talk to him and he was really good,” Hasenfratz said. “He would ask me how I was doing, and I was like, ‘Oh, I am doing all right,’ and he would say, ‘No, mentally?’
“That was the hardest part for him. It is depressing. You are used to being on the ice, competing, and traveling and everything, and now all of a sudden you can’t do anything. It is basically quite depressing.”
His persistence over the physical and emotional hurdles paid off when Hasenfratz finally passed the league’s exercise requirements, allowing him to return to refereeing this season.
“We have minimums we have to be in shape for to be cleared to go on the ice, just like the players do,” he said. “It just took a long time… two years.”
Hasenfratz has a slightly different look for this season. He used to wear the number 30, but has now switched to the number two.
“I had two surgeries,” he said. “I missed two years. This is my second chance, so I thought it was appropriate to go with number two.”
Whatever the number that adorns his referee’s jersey, Hasenfratz is just happy to be back working. He missed everything about it; being around the athletes, the camaraderie with his co-workers, and yes, even getting yelled at by an arena full of hockey fans.
“I probably have the second best job in the world,” Hasenfratz said. “The best job in the world would be playing. I wasn’t good enough to play. Being on the ice, there are only 33 referees and 34 linesmen, so we know everybody. The adrenaline rush when you have 20,000 people yelling at you, it is a good thing.”
It’s like he is back home again.