John and daughter Marie 1987
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Op/Ed: The beginning of a new beginning

By John D'Angelo | Exclusive to
June 29, 2005 - 1:43 PM EDT


The following Op/Ed article was submitted to
John D'Angelo and his son

It was midway through the 2003-2004 season when I realized it was over for me as a hockey official.

I was breaking up a fight in a club-level college game - Virginia Commonwealth University was the home team.

A really big kid from VCU was not taking “stop” for an answer and was trying to get past the referee to resume pummeling an opponent behind the net.

It was bad enough that the referee was in the middle of a fight instead of watching the show from a safe distance, but now he was being shoved by a young man who was, as previously mentioned, really big.

Being clumsy, I managed to step on a stick and lose my balance as I zeroed in on my target. And suddenly I was dizzy; but not deterred. In fact, I was angry, because these guys know damn well that when I shout “that’s it” they stop fighting. “Don’t make me embarrass you in front of your friends.”

But this really big kid wouldn’t stop, and I had him lined up as I’ve lined up a hundred hockey players before him. I took two short, hard strides, one long one, and made contact right on the goal line.

What usually happens in this situation is the player finds himself being driven backwards, with no control over the situation, until he and I slam into the boards. Then I hold him there and try to talk some sense into him. “You’re done. Let’s get out of here before you get suspended for a bunch of games.”

But that didn’t happen this time. Instead, when I made contact he got his right hand up under my left armpit and instead of us flying into the boards hard enough to jar his helmet loose, we just sort of glided, in slow motion until he made the excellent decision not to knock me on my butt and embarrass me in front of everybody.

We skated to the nearest exit and he left the ice without any further incident.

I turned back to see if there were any more altercations and suddenly realized I wasn’t breathing. I was sucking in air, but nothing was happening in my lungs. And I had an intense, shooting pain in my left arm, near the shoulder.

Fortunately the referee had already made his way to the scorer’s booth to report the penalties and my partner had taken the other two combatants off the ice, so I was able to steal a few moments in the penalty box, allegedly adjusting my equipment, until I could regain my breath.

We finished the second period and I decided in the dressing room that I couldn’t come back out for the third—the pain in my shoulder just wouldn’t go away.

I knew then and there that I was done as a serious official.

What I didn’t know was that I had experienced a major warning sign of a pending heart attack.

I continued working games for the remainder of the season. I had several other injuries that just didn’t want to heal; so I had no trouble ignoring that my body was advising me of a much bigger problem that night in Richmond. In fact, I convinced myself that a shot which hit me in a University of Virginia game a month later, which broke the skate of the player it hit after it rebounded off my leg, was the real reason I couldn’t skate higher-level games any more.

But I was fooling myself. I new something was very wrong; I just didn’t know how wrong.

I sat out all of this past season, as my other maladies - which included bone spurs on my ankles - made it too painful to skate at all.

So here I sit a year and a half later, eagerly anticipating my next cardiologist appointment, when I will find out the date for my double bypass operation.

I’m a lucky man - I had a massive heart attack and I’m still alive. The heart attack came just a month ago. The symptoms were quite obvious and well-defined. This time I was at home at bedtime and had severe chest and arm pains that would not go away no matter how much I told myself it was indigestion.

I took an ambulance to the hospital, lost consciousness on the way, and woke up 14 hours later in an intensive care room after having my life saved by a surgeon who placed a stint - that’s the balloon thing which opens a closed pathway for blood going to and from the heart - into one of my clogged arteries.

Now I sit around waiting for my heart to heal enough to handle the stress of the bypass surgery. I can’t go to work, the mortgage company and others who expect regular payments from me are totally unsympathetic, and the highlight of my day is going to the supermarket to take a 15-minute cardio-walk.

Every night I’m afraid to go to sleep because I don’t know if I will wake up the next day.

But I have hope. I have a 2-year-old son who is going to play in the NHL if I’m around to coach him. I have a surgeon warming up his scalpel and the saw he’ll use to cut my breastbone in half to gain access to my heart. And I have a bunch of referee and linesman sweaters that are going to be way too big for me now that I’ve had a healthy lifestyle forced upon me.

I plan to be back on the ice this fall and working competitive games in 2006. The cardiologist tells me my arteries are so badly clogged that after the surgery I will feel better than I’ve felt in 15 years.

If only they had a bypass operation for my knees and ankles. welcomes your feedback, which can be submitted to