UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 29: Jay Pandolfo #29 of the New York Islanders argues with referee Mike Hasenfratz #2 following the Islanders 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on October 29, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Before the madness of the Stanley Cup Playoffs grips us all, I thought I'd poll the Nashville hockey writing community on the stories which will stand out when we look back on this 2011-2012 Predators season. This series will run over the next week or so, and celebrate events on and off the ice, some momentous, some just plain silly. I hope you enjoy them. Today's selection: Jim Diamond chronicles the remarkable story of NHL referee (and Franklin, Tennessee resident) Mike Hasenfratz.
This is the time of year when NHL scribes deliberate over which players should be honored at the NHL Awards, whether it be the best defenseman, most valuable player, etc. As if the adulation of fans and multi-million dollar contracts aren't quite enough, they get their night of tribute in Las Vegas, too.
Lost in all that clamor, however, is the dedication and professionalism displayed by the referees and linesmen, whose work usually goes unnoticed (at least until an error or oversight takes place). Most hockey fans have no appreciation for the effort and skill that goes into officiating NHL games, which makes the story which Jim Diamond chose for our "Stories of the Season" series all the more special.
Just like players, NHL officials have to be in peak physical condition to keep up with the world's fastest contact sport. But when a problem with his aorta required heart surgery, Mike Hasenfratz's career was on the line:
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.
Missing an entire season, and then another a subsequent surgery was required to deal with a complication, would be hard enough to deal with, but then you have to consider the recuperation process. All that rest & recovery time not only dragged out Hasenfratz's stay away from the game, but the limitations which doctors placed on his activity meant that he was getting further and further out of shape with each passing month.
Making it back to the NHL would take a monumental effort, both physically and mentally, but thanks to his own determination and the support of Teppo Numminen (who missed a year due to heart surgery and came back to play one more year on an NHL blueline), Hasenfratz made it happen, and is back on the job this year (Jim's article was written right before Hasenfratz would officiate a game at Bridgestone Arena). He's sending guys to the box, taking abuse from fans, and I would assume he's loving every minute of it.
With that kind of background, it just makes me appreciate all the more the photo at the top of this article. It takes a special kind of guy to relish that kind of work!
Make sure to head over and read the rest of Jim's remarkable tale.