Dennis LaRue has been in the NHL since 1989 and is considered the top American-born referee. His career includes some 600 NHL regular season and 19 Stanley Cup games; three Olympic assignments in 2006, 2002, and 1988; and both the 1986 World Championship and World U20 Championship. LaRue resides in the Spokane, Washington area and is engaged to be married this summer.
HockeyRefs.com: How did a kid born in Georgia and raised in Washington make the NHL?
LaRue: A lot of luck. I got started primarily through USA Hockey. My father was in the military and we left Georgia when I was 2 years old and ended up in Spokane, where I started playing hockey and [later] started getting involved in officiating through Norm White and Greg Elliot. It was a great opportunity to get extra ice time and make a couple extra bucks. [Officiating] is a great chance to skate for free and get paid. Kids can work two or three games a weekend and make good money.
HockeyRefs.com: Was there much hockey out there back then?
LaRue: Yeah. Weâ€™re 85 or 90 miles from the Canadian border. Most of what we played was against traveling teams from the British Columbian border cities â€“ Nelson, Trail, Grand Forks, Kimberly, Cranbrook, Kootenay â€“ and through USA Hockey in the Pacific Northwest district playoffs, we played Portland and Seattle.
HockeyRefs.com: What leagues did you work on your way up?
LaRue: I pretty much began in the Kootenay International league, which was Junior B, and also the Western International [Senior A] league. I then worked into the Western Hockey League and then the WCHA, IHL, and AHL on my way up to the NHL.
HockeyRefs.com: Some like to claim the NHL â€“ at least historically â€“ has had a bias against hiring American officials. Do you think thatâ€™s the case or at least was the case when you broke into the league?
LaRue: I have never experienced that and I donâ€™t thatâ€™s the case. I believe today that the NHL is trying to hire the best people they can. The opportunities are probably better for Canadians for any number of reasons. Thereâ€™s a lot more higher level hockey for them to work and be seen and a lot of the college hockey in the U.S. â€“ which is outstanding â€“ doesnâ€™t use younger officials and inhibits their opportunity and I think that is part of the problem as well.
HockeyRefs.com: Are you saying that Canada has a better development program for officials?
LaRue: I think they have better and more opportunities. Iâ€™m not familiar with either USA or Canadian hockey development any longer and couldnâ€™t accurately comment on if one is better than the other anymore. The number of high-quality games available in Canada is greater than the number of high-quality games in the U.S.
HockeyRefs.com: As an amateur from the United States, you went to the former Soviet Union for the world menâ€™s championship in 1986. What was that experience like?
LaRue: It was amazing. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have had ever in hockey, but really to spend three weeks in Moscow at that time in history was very enlightening and eye opening. It was at the height of the Cold War and to see how they lived and the things they had to go through compared to how I was familiar with living in North America was incredibly eye opening. And it was also tense, as two major events occurred while I was in Moscow. First, Reagan bombed Libya right after I got there and secondly, the Chernobyl meltdown occurred while we were there and I didnâ€™t actually find out about it until I got back in the United States and there were news reports all over New York. They were trying to hide it and you canâ€™t hide a nuclear meltdown.
HockeyRefs.com: Was there any pressure put on you or did you ever think there were Soviet-or KGB spies watching you guys?
LaRue: We joked about stuff like that, but I have never evidence that was happening. We had flowers and vases at dinner that we would talk into â€“ it was an inside thing that some of us western guys did.
HockeyRefs.com: How does it feel a few days before your third Olympic assignment?
LaRue: I kind of had to pinch myself to be honest. I was lucky to be selected the first time in 1988 and it was fantastic, but it was different with the amateurs, and when I was selected in 2002, it was a big thrill and something I was excited about and pleased to be chosen again, and this third time, I wasnâ€™t expecting it. I am just as thrilled now and maybe more so because I have never got to do the Olympics [outside of North America]. I am looking forward to going to Europe and comparing and contrasting the Olympics in and outside of North America. Going to Italy will be terrific and I have always wanted to go just as a tourist.
HockeyRefs.com: What do you expect Turin to be like - accommodations, freebies, and what not?
LaRue: First off, we arenâ€™t in the Olympic Village. Weâ€™re in a separate hotel near downtown Torino, but I think weâ€™re going to have an opportunity to go and visit the Village, which is something I have never done.
As far as mementos and souvenirs, itâ€™s a great opportunity to get things and the pucks are very hard to get. In Salt Lake, we devised up means to get some, but I donâ€™t think anyone came away with more than a few. Thereâ€™s a limited supply of pucks and someone is covering them up. Hats, pins, and whatever else you want are there. The IIHF was very good to us in Salt Lake with things.
The Olympics are very casual. Weâ€™ll wears coats and ties to the games, because weâ€™re professionals. But in terms of going around the town, itâ€™s a casual experience and trying to stay warm. Thereâ€™s no rule about having a glass of wine or beer, but to be honest, most of us are pretty smart and we arenâ€™t going to go anyplace where weâ€™re likely to be recognized. We arenâ€™t about drawing attention to ourselves and we â€“ most of us, I think â€“ try to avoid that.
HockeyRefs.com: What about the issue of NHL participation â€“ wasnâ€™t it a bit more special as an amateur?
LaRue: It was, I think. I told a reporter at the time that it was a great experience and I wouldnâ€™t want to monopolize that chance. But things change. They want the best available officials and that has something to do with it. Iâ€™m glad they still have amateur participation, but I am disappointed that our going curtains the North American amateur participation. Unlike Salt Lake [in 2002] and Nagano [in 1998], we donâ€™t have any referees going.
HockeyRefs.com: Besides the better players, how different was 2002 from 1988?
LaRue: It was completely different. The rule changes primarily; the ability to make the long passes and the different rules they had in place were the primarily one. It really opened up the game and it was amazing to watch the quality of the players. I had to figure out how to get to the goal line as fast as the puck went. The Soviets in Calgary had their best players, but most of the others had their best players playing in the NHL. Having the opportunity to have the best in the world competing made the games that much better and the outcome was much different too. Itâ€™s just great that the best from whatever country can participate. Itâ€™s a showcase event and the best players should be there.
HockeyRefs.com: Will it be hard remembering the differences in the IIHF and NHL procedures?
LaRue: For the most part, they are very similar. There are some differences, but we have been really well prepared by the IIHF and Dave Baker from the NHL office with a comprehensive comparison of about eight pages, most of which are mostly housekeeping. I donâ€™t expect [the differences] will be a problem. When we get to Torino, we will have two days of meetings with the IIHF to go through things. It wasnâ€™t problematic in Salt Lake and I donâ€™t expect any in Torino.
HockeyRefs.com: You arenâ€™t getting any younger â€“ no offence â€“ and the game isnâ€™t getting slower. How hard will it be going back to a three-official system and having to skate end-to-end?
LaRue: I think that will be the biggest challenge we face. In Salt Lake it was different â€“ we were just removed the three-official system â€“ and now I havenâ€™t done a three-official game since then - four years ago. Thatâ€™s going to be the biggest challenge for the North American referees. Fortunately, we are all in good condition and I think we are all excellent skaters, but it will be a challenge to do that.
HockeyRefs.com: Would you have liked for the NHL to go back to three officials for to get you prepared?
LaRue: Actually, weâ€™re doing a game. All four of us are all doing a game next week in the AHL. It should be an opportunity to familiarize with the positioning and get comfortable with that, but it really shouldnâ€™t take long. Having this opportunity will be very beneficial and very useful for all of us.
HockeyRefs.com: Speaking of the four-official system, do you like it?
LaRue: Love it.
HockeyRefs.com: Even at first?
LaRue: Yeah. I think that with the rule changes now we couldnâ€™t go back to a three-official system. Even when it was first introduced, I thought it was evolutionary and forward thinking. The game has gotten faster and the players are bigger and stronger. Itâ€™s a much better system when you have two guys out there doing the work and the game is better served by that.
HockeyRefs.com: So how are you - as the only referee on the ice in Turin â€“ going to call the NHL-style standard?
LaRue: Well, I think that is the other challenge for us. Itâ€™s going to be something we have to adapt to and weâ€™re going to be expected to work at a very high-level with a similar NHL standard. Iâ€™m confident that we will be able to do that, but Iâ€™m not naive to say we will see everything we see now.
HockeyRefs.com: Is the game too fast for one referee?
LaRue: I think at the highest levels, itâ€™s better served by two. I donâ€™t want to say itâ€™s too fast because I know we can do it, but I really believe the game is better served by four officials - particularly at this level.
HockeyRefs.com: Do you think itâ€™s fair that your prospective NHL referees are forced to master the three-official system and then learn a completely new system once theyâ€™re hired?
LaRue: I think you really need to learn to do it by yourself and then come into the league. Adapting to the four-official system is not a real challenge from the practical standpoint. Working in the AHL as the one referee gives you an opportunity to cut your teeth and get everything you need to be confident in the NHL.
HockeyRefs.com: What did you think of the whole controversy surrounding your former boss and colleague, Andy Van Hellemond?
LaRue: I understand that Andy resigned and thatâ€™s basically all I know about it. I am kind of isolated out here in the West and sometimes thatâ€™s a good thing and a bad thing. I have no knowledge of why he left.
HockeyRefs.com: Were you surprised when Stephen Walkom left for management?
LaRue: Yes and no. It came as an initial surprise just because it was unexpected, but in hindsight it was a perfect move by the league and Stephen and our group. He has been an effective leader and itâ€™s just great for the entire [officiating] department. I am very pleased both personally and as a member of the NHLOA.
HockeyRefs.com: Is it good having your unionâ€™s former president the boss?
LaRue: I think Stephen is a professional enough person to take off one hat and put on another hat. He is more than capable to discern the differences in those roles and I think it is a non-factor.
HockeyRefs.com: How hard is the travel seeing you live in the West and away from most of the NHLâ€™s team - your traffic life has to be hectic?
LaRue: Yeah, it can be, but itâ€™s not enough of a trade-off to move. We have gotten more and more teams as my career has evolved; Denver, Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose. Thereâ€™s more and more teams in the West now, but itâ€™s also hard on the teams. You live in the New York or Philadelphia area and I bet those players spend a lot more time in their beds than the guys in the west. Stephen has a lot more guys moving around now. For instance, guys that were traditionally in the Northeast corridor have worked a lot more guys in different areas.
HockeyRefs.com: You were one of the first officials to put on a visor. What made you do that and did the guys tease you?
LaRue: No, there wasnâ€™t really any teasing. I did it because it was mandatory for the Olympic games in 2002 and after having worked those games, it didnâ€™t bother me. From a safety and practical standpoint, there was no good reason to take it off and obviously with the unfortunate incident with Don Van Massenhoven in November, a lot of our guys have elected to wear visors and youâ€™ll see more of that in the future.
HockeyRefs.com: What advice would you give a young official?
LaRue: My advice is to work as many games at whatever level you can because thatâ€™s the best way to develop and then to either go to camps and get involved with USA Hockey or Hockey Canada and listen to the people who are trying to teach you. I learn stuff on this job every day and I look back on when I was young and I thought I knew more than I did, so my advice is to pay attention with what people are trying to help you with. And the other part of my advice is to have fun and if you arenâ€™t, stop. If you arenâ€™t passionate about it or it becomes a chore, then stop because youâ€™re never going to enjoy [officiating].