NHL referee Mike Hasenfratz is going to work a regular-season game in Canada this weekend for the first time in two years, quite an accomplishment considering he could have died in the interim.
"It's the same thing that killed John Ritter," said Hasenfratz, a 45-year-old official from Regina who joined the NHL's staff in 2000. "When the doctors told me what I had, they asked me, 'How did you know about this? We usually find out about it when we're doing an autopsy.'"
Ritter, an actor best known for TV roles on Three's Company and 8 Simple Rules … for Dating my Teenage Daughter, died unexpectedly of a heart affliction called aortic dissection in 2003. A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed against his doctors five years later; it was dismissed.
Hasenfratz, who has lived in Nashville for the past 11 years, is slated to be an on-ice official for a Winnipeg Jets home game on Saturday. He's already worked about a dozen regular-season contests, including a welcome-back moment during his first assignment when he was smashed between Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews and Dallas Stars forward Jake Dowell.
"They compressed right against my chest, so I put my hand down there and nothing was sticking out," Hasenfratz said. "I knew I could take a hit.
"I'm so glad to be back. I don't want anything to do with retirement. I missed the environment of the game. The other night in Washington, they do something called, Unleash the Fury, or something. And the place goes crazy. I was thinking, 'This is where I want to be.' I'm back on a full schedule and I'd like to think I'm back to where I used to be, but I'm not there yet."
Hasenfratz was training for the 2009-10 hockey season when a heart monitor he was wearing, as recommended by the NHL, showed an abnormal heartbeat. Doctors told him his ascending aorta, the main artery leading into his heart, was slightly enlarged but it wasn't too worrisome. Shortly afterward, the aortic opening into his heart had expanded to 5.4 centimetres; 1.7 is normal.
Hasenfratz immediately went to the world renowned Cleveland Clinic for open-heart surgery to replace the enlarged aorta. A fluid buildup around his heart had to be drained in a subsequent surgery, which caused one of his lungs to collapse.
"They had to rip me open," Hasenfratz said. "It's not like a stent or anything. I've still got about a 14-inch scar."
Hasenfratz missed two full NHL seasons, fighting inactivity and depression to get back to the game's elite level. He could barely bring himself to attend an NHL game to visit his compatriots. His lifestyle was wavering.
"There were times when we had to give him some pretty tough love," said Terry Gregson, the NHL's director of officiating. "I've never been a father but I went to visit him in Nashville. There were some things happening in his life and he got into the victim's cycle.
"We could only do so much because we wanted to see it out. Mike thought we were putting up barriers, but he needed medical clearance and physical clearance. He thought he was ready to go last year but Mike wasn't anywhere close to the condition he had to be in. This year he was. There hasn't been any great buildup, that's what we wanted. But he's back and he's coming along fine. His foot speed needs work and his timing off the play is a little rusty, Mike knows that. But he's got that hockey knowledge, which is why we wanted Mike back."
Although frustrated with the NHL's demands before he returned, Hasenfratz said in hindsight he realizes he was treated fairly by the league and its medical personnel. While it was suggested he could have retired on a disability pension, Hasenfratz never considered that route.
He donned a different jersey; he now wears No. 2 to signify his second chance after two surgeries at having the "world's second-best job, right after playing."
A recent conversation with Buffalo Sabres assistant coach Teppo Numminen, who underwent open-heart surgery before returning to play in the NHL, made Hasenfratz realize there was also a psychological side to his recovery.
"I'm sure this cost me my marriage, because I sat around for two years and we didn't have anything to talk about," Hasenfratz said. "You always think you're the way you used to be, but you're not. Everyone's telling me I'm quieter than I used to be.
"A lot of people didn't think I'd be back, but now I want to get to the playoffs and have a shot at the final. If you're in this business for anything else, you're in the wrong business."
Special to The Globe and Mail