by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane's Dennis LaRue skates alongside the greatest hockey players in the world every time he steps onto the ice as a National Hockey League referee, but LaRue makes no attempt to hide his excitement about working at his third Winter Olympics next month in Italy.
"The Olympic atmosphere is incredible. It's really a celebration," says LaRue, a Gonzaga Prep graduate who played on Spokane's last Allan Cup senior amateur champions in 1980.
"It's so much fun to be a part of, just for the fans. To participate in Salt Lake [as a referee at the 2002 Olympics] -- that was the best hockey you'll ever see. As a hockey fan, which I've always been, that part is terrific. To be out there participating in it, it's almost indescribable."
LaRue, an NHL referee since 1991, has certainly paid his dues. He was barely older than the players when he first began officiating at the old Spokane Winter Club at Five Mile on the north side of Spokane.
"I was probably about 12 or 13 ... I got two or three dollars," LaRue recalls.
Nowadays, LaRue makes more than $200,000 by jetting all over the United States and Canada and officiating 72 NHL games a season. He still finds time to golf enough -- "my other passion" -- to be the reigning Spokane City Amateur champion.
LaRue, 46, was the only American referee selected to work the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and now the 2006 Olympics in Torino. Ten referees (including three Canadian refs out of the NHL, in which the vast majority of officials are Canadian) were picked by the International Ice Hockey Federation to work in Italy.
LaRue says he benefits from being one of the relatively few high-profile American referees, since the IIHF likes to pick officials from a variety of nations.
"I'm quite certain it helps, though I've never been told that. But I'm smart enough to know," LaRue says.
LaRue worked locally in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League before moving up to the minor league pros and the NHL. In addition to the three Olympics, he officiated at the 1986 World Junior Championships in Hamilton, Ontario, the 1986 World Championships in Moscow, Russia, and the 1991 Canada Cup international tournament at various sites in Canada.
Asked if he'll get butterflies at the Olympics, LaRue says, "Oh, absolutely. One of the keys in this business is that you have to have confidence in your abilities. But that doesn't prevent you from being anxious about the task at hand."
The Olympics assignment just adds to the joy LaRue has experienced in getting back to work after the NHL labor dispute cancelled last season. LaRue, who grew so bored that he worked beer-league softball games last summer in the Spokane area, says he loves the changes in rules and penalties enforcement that have led to more offense in the NHL.
"I think it's fantastic," LaRue says. "The game has opened up. The skill players are able to show their magnificent abilities ... the game's just gotten better."
LaRue says his Olympics experience will be even better if he's selected to work in his first gold medal game -- referees compete for the top spots, too.
"That's absolutely the goal," he says. "The guys I work with, we're all supportive of each other, but we're all competitive.
"I don't think it's ego. I don't like that word. From a professional standpoint, you want to work the best games."