When referee Dennis LaRue steps onto the ice in Vancouver for his first assignment of the 2010 Olympics, he will set a record for officials that might never be equaled. Having first gone to the five-ringed circus in Calgary in 1988, LaRue will have 22 years of Olympic officiating experience, beating current record holder Marc Faucette who also has 18 years to his credit.
“I didn’t know that,” said LaRue when first told of the historic trivia. Indeed, he will be only the second official in Olympic history to appear in four Olympics. Kurt Hauser of Switzerland was the first, but he did it in just 12 years with consecutive appearances in 1948, ’52, ’56, and ’60. Another LaRue record is the 14-year gap between Olympic appearances. After Calgary, he became an NHL referee and didn’t make it back to the international game until 2002 in Salt Lake City.
LaRue’s rise to officiating stardom was perhaps, more than any other referee, two-pronged, his international and professional experience often going hand in hand. None of this could have been predicted from his birth certificate, however, which shows Savannah, Georgia as his place of birth.
“My father was in the military,” he explained, “and we moved around a fair bit when I was young. He was stationed in Georgia, which is how I got to be born there, but we settled a little later in Spokane, Washington, and that’s where I grew up, really.”
LaRue senior played a lot of hockey during his days in the Air Force, and this rubbed off on Dennis who first learned to skate outdoors on the local ponds. However, unlike many officials who took their playing careers to a certain level only to quit and shift to officiating, LaRue started holding a whistle soon after he started playing the game.
“To be honest, officiating was a great way to get more ice time, and it helped put a few coins in the jeans, as it were. I started out lining games, but it was a pretty natural progression for me to become a referee. I spent a lot of time at the arena. I’d ref two or three games in the morning and then play a game in my own league in the afternoon.”
LaRue was blessed with a tinge of serendipity which so often takes one along a particular career path. His last year of playing came with a Spokane team coached by former NHL goalie Al Rollins. Rollins knew of LaRue’s refereeing moonlighting and “made a few phone calls” as LaRue described it. The result afforded LaRue the chance to work some pre-season games in the Western Hockey League.
At the same time, LaRue was also invited to USA Hockey’s development program for officials. “I did well there, and then when I got into the WHL I did my first serious work,” he said. “But I never felt that this was my career or that I was on the road to something I’d be doing all these years later. At that time, officiating definitely wasn’t my career objective.”
The progression continued apace for LaRue. He was invited to become part of the NHL’s trainee program, which meant working lower-level games while being guided by the best of the best. Meanwhile, back on the international side of things, LaRue was asked to work some games at the U.S. Olympic Festival where he again acquitted himself well. Through all of these combined efforts, he was nominated by USA Hockey to represent his country at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the only way any official can work the Olympics (excepting recent NHL participation).
After that, LaRue started to work in the AHL under the guidance of his NHL mentors, and in 1989 he got into his first NHL game. He never looked back. Like all professional refs, however, his NHL work eliminated him from ever working in the international arena. All of that changed in 1998, though, when the league closed for two and a half weeks to allow its players – and officials – to participate in Nagano. LaRue wasn’t part of this first crew, but four years later he was. He went again in 2006 and will now see his third Olympics as an NHL referee, in Vancouver.
“I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, there’s no doubt about that,” LaRue noted. “The Olympics are such a great time to make friends and meet other people, especially European officials. It’s a great fraternity we have.”
Looking even further ahead, LaRue and his brethren have no control over whether they will go to Sochi, Russia in 2014, so he doesn’t think about what he can’t control. “There’s nothing we can do about it, so we don’t really talk about it,” he admitted. If the NHL participates, its officials participate. If it doesn’t, they don’t. End of story. But for LaRue, that doesn’t matter. Vancouver is what matters, and that’s where he’s headed.