Leading up to the game between the New Jersey Devils and Hartford Whalers on Jan. 15, 1983, there was no indication that history might be made. But once the game started in Hartford, Conn., Mickey Volcan and Garry Howatt became the central figures in an unusual and historic moment that likely never will be repeated. Thirty years later, they still occasionally talk about being the only players in NHL history to serve as emergency on-ice officials in an NHL game.
On their way to the game from Boston, referee Ron Fournier and linesman Ron Asselstine got stuck in a snowstorm. So by the time both teams were ready to drop the puck, there was only one linesman available to officiate the game. Just 15 minutes before game time, linesman Ron Foyt assumed refereeing duties and approached each team about finding replacement linesmen.
"All of a sudden, [Whalers coach] Larry Kish said, 'We're going to have a player from each team and you're going to represent our team,'" Volcan, who was unable to play that night due to a hand injury sustained in Hartford's morning skate, said. "So we put on some sweats and black practice jerseys and they called us in to the room prior to the game. We sat down and he [Foyt] went through it with us."
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"He [Foyt] told us to stay out of the way," Howatt, the Devils' enforcer who was recovering from a knee injury at the time, said. "I was hoping for a fight to break out so I could get in there. It was interesting."
Howatt got his wish, although none of the officials were required to break up a first-period tussle. Fournier and Asselstine eventually made it to the arena by the second period, but Volcan and Howatt's time serving as linesmen wasn't just unprecedented, it also was a little awkward. Even more so for Howatt, who had played for the Whalers the previous season, totaling 18 goals and 242 penalty minutes. But the forward's reputation as a tough, physical player appeared to keep his teammates -- current and former -- from taking advantage of a unique situation.
"They knew what I was like. I got along with them pretty good," Howatt said. "I knew all those guys because I played with them the year before. I was yapping at them a bit."
Volcan, on the other hand, was forced to assert his authority when one prominent Whalers teammate tried to take advantage.
"We were in our defensive zone and Ron Francis was taking the faceoff," Volcan said. "I'm trying to square the guys up and Ronnie is really cheating. I had to kick Ronnie out of the circle. It was so blatant. I said, 'Ronnie, you're out.'"
It may have been only for a period, but Volcan and Howatt's stints as NHL officials was a historic, if unusual, moment that isn't likely ever to be repeated. To his credit, Volcan actually received his referee certification when he got involved in amateur hockey following the end of his NHL career. For his work in that game, which the Devils won 2-1, he was presented with a proper official's jersey, which he still has to this day. Howatt, on the other hand, doesn't recall getting a jersey.
"I should have been able to get my referee's jersey," Howatt said. "They didn't [even] pay me."