Don Koharski is retiring from his illustrious career as an NHL referee proud of the game he leaves behind.
“The game right now is probably the best I’ve ever seen it, for speed, skill and parity,” Koharski says.
If anyone is qualified to judge, it’s Koharski. The 53-year-old Dartmouth native donned the stripes for 1,719 games over 32 seasons, sharing ice surfaces with everyone from Guy LaFleur to Wayne Gretzky to Sidney Crosby.
Koharski, whose final game was on April 9, is glad he retired now and not during the NHL lockout. When the league came back from its one-year hiatus in 2005 with a new collective bargaining agreement, the NHL Officials Association began strictly enforcing existing rules to cut down on obstruction.
The game has changed so much, Koharski figures the Great One would obliterate his NHL single-season record of 215 points — set in 1985-86 — if he were still active.
“Guys (like Gretzky) in the ’80s were getting hooked, held, grabbed, tackled and were still able to do what they did so well,” Koharski says. “Nowadays, there is no more tackling or hooking or holding. It’s dramatically different.”
So why aren’t the superstars of today piling up 200-point seasons? Koharski says bigger goaltending equipment and stricter goaltender interference rules are factors. But moreover, he says no one in today’s game compares to Gretzky.
“Wayne Gretzky was a freak in our sport,” Koharski says. “Everybody else was a superstar.”
Koharski began reffing as a hobby in the 1970s at Shannon Park Arena, never imagining he would one day work 11 Stanley Cup Finals and a pair of Canada Cups.
He got serious when he won a community award and used the $50 prize to attend a refereeing camp in Ontario. That led to a job in the World Hockey Association in 1975.
With his career behind him, he’s looking forward to a lighter travel load and not having to pack his equipment bag. He lives in Dade City, Fla., and plans to keep working with the NHL Officials Association in an off-ice capacity. He also runs an annual camp for referees in Dartmouth in late July.
He recommends his career to anyone who is cut out for it.
“You’ve got to have three things: Thick skin, a short memory, and a good sense of humour,” Koharski says. “It’s not for everyone. You’ve got to be a different breed.”