When umpire Don Denkinger blew the call that many claim turned the World Series around, he was standing eight feet from first base with only one duty, to determine whether runner or ball reached the bag first.

A hockey referee is skating at high speed, trying both to watch the puck and dodge it, while avoiding swift skaters and simultaneously scrutinizing them in an effort to enforce a largely subjective rule book. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a referee's decision rarely invites universal acceptance. It is more common for both coaches to complain at the same time than for both to nod their heads in approval.

"My dream is for both coaches to shake my hand after a game and tell me I did a great job," said referee Ron Fournier. "But I know it will never happen."

John McCauley, a former referee who is the National Hockey League's assistant director of officiating, said: "It will never happen in the next life, either, because all the referees will be up there (pointing up and all the coaches will be down there (pointing in the opposite direction)."

Obviously, realism and a sense of humor are among the requirements for the men who fill a job that ranks right alongside traffic cop in most hockey fans' acceptance. They also need skating ability, an even temper, reasonable size and, most important, presence. Surprisingly, corrected vision is okay, although contact lenses are recommended.

"If you look like a ref, you'll get in the front door," McCauley said. "Presence will take you over the rough barriers until you get over the hump. How you control the emotional elements is half the battle. You can't be hot-headed and you have to have a general empathy for the game and the personnel involved."

Most referees played hockey as youngsters, realized they could not progress to playing in the NHL and turned to officiating so they could stay with the sport.

"I played minor hockey through the juniors in Winnipeg and then went to university," said Andy Van Hellemond, a top referee who has officiated the Stanley Cup final the last nine years. "I reffed the little ones while I played and at university I reffed at night. I enjoyed it and when expansion came along, I was fortunate to get a minor-league contract with the Western Hockey League.

"They had a lot of older players like Guyle Fielder and Connie Madigan and it was a good learning experience for a young ref. Then World Hockey started and some guys who were ahead of me moved up and it opened the doors. At 23 I was able to do 20 NHL games. The next year Bruce Hood hurt his knee and missed a full season and I was doing almost a full schedule. The same thing happened for other guys when I was hurt -- they got their chance."

The road to the NHL was not smooth for Fournier, a goaltender in the Quebec Junior League who became an official in that organization to maintain contact with hockey. It is a tradition in many Quebec cities to throw eggs at the referee. In Fournier's case, they found even bigger objects.

"I was in Sorel one night and a guy took one of those fire extinguishers off the wall and threw it from the balcony," Fournier said. "It missed my head by 10 feet.

"Officials are a different breed of cat. Nothing comes easy and you have to be special people, one in 5,000, to go through all that abuse and those tough times to get to the NHL. It's so much easier to work at the NHL level, where you have professionals working with you, minor officials and linesmen, instead of guys working for the home team."

Some NHL coaches complain that certain referees are "homers," favoring the home team because of the crowd. Being human, officials no doubt can be swayed by a loud roar calling their attention to an alleged misdemeanor, but McCauley says that to see a true "homer" it is necessary to go off to hockey's boondocks.

"We used to go into some strange cities and once in Memphis the referee saw the linesmen applauding after Memphis scored a goal," McCauley said. "He told them what their job was, but it didn't get through. He called an offside when they wouldn't and after the game they got even, driving away and leaving him in the shower.

"The job is never easy. In Providence, they had chicken wire at the ends instead of glass. You'd jump onto the boards and grab the chicken wire to get out of the way and the fans would knock you down. The doors to the benches there opened onto the ice instead of inward and they'd wait till you skated by to make a change, so they could hit you."

Being an NHL referee can be hazardous, too. Van Hellemond, for example, makes it a practice to sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant and he keeps his knee free, just in case a visitor should turn belligerent.

"You learn in certain spots to keep your back to the wall," Van Hellemond said. "The players are never a problem, but irate fans can be."

McCauley knows that only too well. In New York in 1979, he was punched in the face by an angry fan after the Soviets beat the NHL in the Challenge Cup. It took two years for him to regain full vision and, after two more years of officiating, he moved to the executive level.

"The guy was intoxicated and he had been arguing with our guys," McCauley recalled. "Suddenly, he just hauled off and drove me. It was a hell of a shot. I wasn't even the ref that night, I was the standby official.

"Two days later, double vision set in and I had a two-year struggle before I got it back. It was something when I made my comeback, though. In Wichita, the players were tapping their sticks when I was introduced and every game when I got back to the National League was like 'Welcome home, John.' I'd put my hand up for a penalty and guys would run to the box."

Ron Wicks learned how fleeting such sympathy can be. After he was struck in the eye by a puck during a game at Capital Centre, the Capitals' fan club sent a basket of fruit to his hospital bed. When he returned to action, he was greeted by tumultuous applause at the Centre.

"It lasted about five minutes," Wicks recalled. "I think I made one call they didn't like and they were all booing again. But it was nice while it lasted."

One thing Don Koharski likes about being a referee is the travel, which is a good thing, because there is a lot of it involved when you participate in 70 regular-season games, none of which are played at home.

"I enjoy traveling, particularly those midwinter trips to L.A., and I grew up with hockey in Nova Scotia and always enjoyed it," Koharski said. "I figure I'm fortunate to be doing something for a living I enjoy. I couldn't stand a 9 to 5 job."

Sometimes the officials' life stretches a bit too far from the norm, however. A few years ago in Los Angeles, linesman Ron Finn was sitting in his room with referee Gregg Madill. The door was ajar because the other linesman, Ron Asselstine, had gone to the gift shop.

Two suspicious looking men approached the door and Finn, reacting quickly, slammed it shut, knocking Madill out of his way as he did so. Just as Finn closed the door, a bullet sailed between two of his fingers.

The two visitors were nabbed by police in the parking lot; one was a convicted murderer, the other a parole violator.

There are other problems. Bryan Lewis, who on Jan. 15 joined Wicks and Hood as a 1,000-game referee, recently officiated here with his left wrist in a cast, after it was broken when he grabbed the dasher board while vainly trying to elude several players.

"Knee ligament damage is the biggest problem," McCauley said. "The linesmen run into that a lot, when guys change direction while they're trying to break up fights. We had a lot of trouble with backs, too, and we set up a conditioning program that has helped a lot.

"But you still get guys hit with pucks, and groin and hamstring troubles, like the players. It's really surprising that there aren't more."

What is really surprising to a layman is the fact that anyone would want such a demanding job, where the only cheers from the fans accompany a pratfall or a shot in the back from a puck.

Max McNab, the general manager of the New Jersey Devils, equates referees with the explorers who visited darkest Africa and the missionaries who travel to the upper Amazon.

"I consider officiating in hockey one of the most exciting professions," McCauley said. "I'd probably equate it to being a skilled surgeon or a trial lawyer. There's satisfaction in doing a job a lot of people could not do."

"It's a pretty decent way to make a living, but you have to be prepared for just about anything, on and off the ice," Fraser said. "Just like a policeman or a judge, you're looked at as the enemy. If you're thin-skinned, you'll never make it."

The NHL has 11 fulltime referees and three who are being phased in to replace Myers and Wicks, both 45, and Lewis, 43. Another half dozen work in the AHL, with 10 more in a training program working in minor leagues on a per-game basis. There are 21 fulltime linesmen in the NHL.

"Our first source is attendance at a referee school or correspondence we've followed up on," McCauley said. "Word of mouth from GMs and scouts is important, too. We recommend that anyone who is interested attend one of the schools and we pay close attention to them."

There is no mandatory retirement age, but by 45 most referees show signs of slowing down and are phased out as gracefully as possible.

"I'm green with envy when I watch the Super Bowl or World Series and I see that the chief referee or umpire is 52 or 55 years old," said Scotty Morrison, NHL vice president in charge of officiating. "I'd love to have a guy on our staff with 22 or 23 years' experience.

"But in hockey the demands are so strenuous our officials are retiring at 45 or 46. Beyond that, they just can't keep up with the play."

Linesmen last a bit longer and John D'Amico, the league's senior official, is 48. He has officiated more than 1,500 games, of which 23 were as a referee. He developed a skin rash when he took that brief shot as head man.

"I was very nervous as a referee," he said. "It was a lot different then, with only six teams, and the pressure was enormous. Peace of mind meant more to me than the almighty dollar, so I went back to the lines."

Referees start at $36,000 annually and after 12 years the salary peaks at $75,000, plus performance and playoff bonuses that can boost take-home pay to three figures. Linesmen start at $24,000, with a $50,000 maximum after 18 years, plus bonuses. All officials also receive a per diem allowance plus hotels, airlines and ground transportation.

"Nobody is in it to make oodles of dollars," McCauley said. "This is a vocation that starts out initially as an avocation. I don't think more money would attract better people. You grow up wanting to be a hockey player, not an official, but at a certain crossroads in your life, you want to keep your hand in the sport and you pick up the whistle."

McCauley fears that the negativism pervading the sport, particularly at the youth level, will drive aspiring officials away.

"When I grew up in Brampton (Ontario), I played goal Saturday morning at 7 in the house league and then I reffed from 8:20 to 1 o'clock," McCauley said. "I reffed because I liked it. But now the guys look at minor hockey from a different perspective. The attitude is different; everybody is so negative.

"Now they take the money and run. I always worked on the philosophy that even a charity game for 9-year-olds is very important to them. But I have two kids and I watch a lot of minor hockey and I'm afraid the day is coming when the individuals won't be there to call the games -- and the games can't go on without officials.

"I was in Oakville (Ontario) the other day and a parent accosted the officials after a 9-year-old game. That's the mentality we have to live with. It's worrisome that in 10 years nobody will be attracted to officiating. People tell me it's not worth the aggravation."

Most referees realize there is no way they can please everybody. Their principal goal is to be fair and not to affect the outcome of the game.

"I'm trying for the perfect game all the time, but I haven't had it yet," Van Hellemond said. "A player goes for points; we go for 100 percent. If you can leave the rink saying you did your job and one team won and one team lost and you didn't affect the outcome, that's the best.

"Obviously, something like the Calgary-Washington game, where the guy lifted the net and I didn't see it, that took a little away from it for me, to find out later I'd missed something, even if it happened because I was trying so hard to be in position to see the puck if it crossed the line.

"It's funny, when a team is on a roll, the officiating is never mentioned. But lose a couple and that's given as a reason. We're the last line of excuse. You don't look for praise, but you get frustrated when you hear the same excuse all the time."

McCauley said: "We work on the philosophy that if you're right nobody remembers and if you're wrong they never forget."

The principal complaint of coaches and general managers about officiating is inconsistency. What one referee considers a restraining foul, another ignores. Some referees seem to regard anything short of brutality with indifference, particularly in the final period, or in a playoff game.

"The rule book is just a guide," Wicks said. "If you called the game by the book, you'd be the only guy left on the ice. Officiating is a very unscientific profession."

"In hockey, you get so many ideas how the game should be played," Pavelich said. "One guy wants it this way and another guy wants it that way. Then they tell us we're inconsistent."

"Everybody's his own man and works his own game," Fournier said. "Twelve guys at the start of the season sit together and talk about what to stress and what to call, but we're still different individuals and the situations are never the same.

"Hooking might be called one night and not called the next, but that may be because of how he hooked him or whether a scoring opportunity is involved. I think that's the problem with our sport. It's not cut and dried and there's a lot of judgment involved.

"You control the game in your own way. Some guys overreact and some guys have rabbit ears. There are supervisors who try to keep us the same, but we're not.

"It's the coaches' and managers' job to know who they're dealing with. They have Ron Fournier tonight, not somebody else. If Fournier doesn't call the same game as he did two weeks ago, you've got a right to complain. But don't compare my game to another official's call. That's unfair."

Accusations that they are always trying to even out the penalties leave most referees angry, although they admit it is a natural tendency after calling several in a row on one team to be alert for a foul by the opponent.

"A lot of people think referees are accountants who make sure each side gets the same number of penalties," Fraser said. "I resent the suggestion. I wouldn't hesitate to call 10 in a row against the same team if that's what the situation called for.

"But if I'm conscious one side has been penalized a lot, I'll concentrate extra hard to make certain I don't miss something really flagrant the other way."

Communication has improved between referees and club officials as a consequence of the NHL's decision to spend $500,000 examining the problems connected with officiating.

Van Hellemond said: "What's really helped has been the GMs getting to know us and us getting to know them. Conversation is better than confrontation. We're in this together. We're not trying to buffalo anybody, we just want the best possible game.

"Some coaches are so emotional, you try to reason with them and sometimes you can't. That can be a problem, but it goes back to basics -- they're trying to win; we're not."