Long-time NHL Official Reflects – and Looks Forward

By Mark Weisenmiller

NHL referee Don Koharski’s numbers are impressive: 51 years old on Dec. 2. Thirty years as an on-ice official in the world’s best hockey league. More than 1,500 NHL games (including 163 as a linesman). Eleven Stanley Cup Finals. Two All-Star games. The final game of the classic 1987 Canada Cup championship series between Canada and the then-Soviet Union.

Koharski is clearly one of the best and most respected on-ice officials in professional hockey. Yet, most likely he will be remembered in retirement for a bittersweet incident that marred a 1988 playoff series pitting the Boston Bruins and the New Jersey Devils.


“Yellow Sunday,” as the third game of that series was tabbed by reporters, and the events that triggered it, is nothing more than another in a stick bag’s worth of hockey memories  to the Halifax, Nova Scotia, native, who shows no sign of slowing down.

"I just had my best (NHL referee) training camp ever, both mentally and physically," Koharski told Center Ice Magazine. "So it's hard to say how many years I'll keep refereeing in the NHL. One thing though:  When I can no longer keep up with the players and refereeing becomes a mental and physical strain, that's when I'll go. I want to leave on my own terms. But I imagine that I will stay in hockey somehow after I retire from the NHL."

Koharski’s milestone 1,500th game was a Pittsburgh Penguins-Tampa Bay Lighning contest last April 18. (Only Kerry Fraser has officiated more NHL games as a referee.)  Played in the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa (the Koharski family lives in a suburb of Tampa), the game was special for Koharski in many ways. Before the opening face-off, the Lightning gave him a commemorative gift. His wife, Susan, and their sons, Jamie and Kevin, were on hand. And the other members of the officiating crew that night were Mark Pare, a close friend, and Wes McCauley and Angelo D'Amico, the sons of former officials with whom Koharski worked in the NHL.

Other than a brief stint as a milk delivery man, Koharski has been a hockey official most of his life. His career began when he won a community service award as a 14-year-old in Nova Scotia. The award was accompanied by a gift certificate for $50 for a referee school. He attended the school in Ontario the next three years, after which legendary NHL referee Red Storey recruited him for the World Hockey Association, which signed him in 1975 as a linesman at age 19.
Koharski’s WHA career was short-lived. A year later, the infant circuit decided that it no longer needed his services. Fortunately, he landed in the American Hockey League and worked full-time at his milk delivery gig in Dartsmouth, Nova Scotia.

Koharski spent only one season in the minor leagues. The NHL hired him as a linesman in 1977. He refereed his first regular-season game on Nov. 18, 1981, when the Washington Capitals took on the old Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils). Both were terrible teams. Did that make officiating the match easy or hard? "It really doesn't make any difference," Koharski answered quickly. "The games are never easy. They're all tough."

Koharski's career was on smooth ice until that 1988 Bruins-Devils playoff game. Upset over what he perceived to be Koharski's questionable calls during the game, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld verbally accosted Koharski beneath the stands. "Have another donut, you fat pig!" Schoenfeld yelled in full view of a TV camera broadcasting live across the U.S.

The NHL suspended Schoenfeld for his antics. The Devils responded by filing a restraining order asking the court to lift the suspension. Incredibly, it was granted minutes before the start of the fourth game of the series, on Mother’s Day in New Jersey.

When Koharski's officiating colleagues heard Schoenfeld would be behind the Devils’ bench, they refused to work the game. The NHL quickly turned to three amateur off-ice officials. Two of them didn’t even have their own striped sweater, so the trio had to wear yellow practice jerseys; hence the game’s tag line as “Yellow Sunday.”

While the incident is brought up almost every day by fans, Koharski says Schoenfeld has apologized publicly many times for the incident and wrote letters of apology to Koharski and his family. “He (Schoenfeld) has said that because of what happened, he grew to better control his feelings and emotions and became a better person," said Koharski

"You know, I'm one of those persons who try to be positive in life and a number of things that have made me and the game better happened because of [Yellow Sunday]. For instance, I'm better fit physically and security at NHL games is better. (Koharski has often stated that Schoenfeld pushed him during their altercation.) I'm better at controlling my emotions on a game day."

Unfortunately for Koharski, popular culture won’t let go of the incident. In the 2004 film "Wayne's World" there was a character named officer Koharski, who is a cop at a donut shop. Canadian comedian-actor Mike Myers, who starred in "Wayne's World," has acknowledged that the character is a reference to the incident.

The hockey powers could care less about “Donutgate,” as one publication dubbed it recently. At the 1987 Canada Cup, officials for the Soviet hockey team requested specifically that Koharski work the final game of that huge series, won by Team Canada on a late goal by Mario Lemieux.

Interestingly, Koharski has no interest in expanding his international hockey resume to include an Olympics, not even the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. "I have no regrets not working them (Olympic hockey games). It's just a preference," opined Koharski.







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