Referee Andy Van Hellemond flew from Washington to Toronto yesterday, then was taken immediately from the airport to a hospital, for a complete examination of his back problems.

Van Hellemond, 34, who has experienced recurrent pains in his back over the last few years, was forced to leave Sunday's game between the Washington Capitals and Edmonton Oilers because of severe back spasms after only 5 1/2 minutes. Until long after the Oilers' 4-1 victory, he lay on his back on the floor of the officials' dressing room, legs up on a bench, trying to alleviate the pain.

"This may be it," Van Hellemond said, meaning the end of his 10-year NHL officiating career. If it is, it will be a tremendous blow to the NHL, where inconsistent calls by most of the refereeing staff have become a serious problem.

While Wayne Gretzky ranks head and shoulders above the rest of the NHL players, Van Hellemond enjoys the same recognition among the referees.

A measure of the respect in which Van Hellemond is held was shown by the sellout crowd of 18,130, which accorded him loud, genuine applause on his departure.

"It's very thoughtful and very nice," Van Hellemond said. "But to be truthful, I was in so much pain, I didn't really notice it. I wanted to go on, but I couldn't.

"When I was hurt the last time, I tried to go on and I wound up missing six weeks. The muscles puffed up and made it a lot worse. It's like whiplash, except it's in the lower back.

"It was hard on two guys (Gord Broseker and Paul Flaherty), because with these teams you have a lot of skating and movement of the puck. We know the position of the teams and that every point is important to Washington. But I just couldn't go on.

"I didn't see any of the game after I left, but apparently the players stuck to hockey. We appreciate that, because in this situation they could make things impossible."