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During the most recent reprise of the eye- and head-protection issue in the National Hockey League, sparked by Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Bryan Berard's serious eye injury, one group of bareheaded participants escaped notice.

Yet they are visible in many NHL games, flying up and down the ice without helmets. This group is a dwindling number of NHL referees and linesmen who are not required to wear helmets.

Andy van Hellemond, now retired from the NHL and working as an executive for the East Coast Hockey League, was the first on-ice NHL official to wear a helmet. He put one on at the start of the 1984-85 season and still shakes his head at the holdouts.

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"We're setting a terrible example for kids who referee in minor hockey," he said. "Some [NHL officials]will spend $100 on custom-made shinpads that wrap all the way around their legs, but they won't spend $35 on a helmet to protect their head."

The NHL has 60 referees and linesmen under contract and among them are 11 men who do not wear helmets. This is allowed through a grandfather clause in the collective agreement between the NHL Officials' Association and the league, which made wearing helmets mandatory beginning with the 1988-89 season.

However, just as the NHL did with its players when helmets became compulsory for them in 1979, a grandfather clause was inserted in the agreement. All referees and linesmen who were employed on or before Sept. 1, 1988 did not have to wear a helmet.

Officials who work in the minor leagues affiliated with the NHL have to wear helmets, as do all those under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Hockey Association.

Bryan Lewis, the NHL's director of officiating, says there was "not a lot of resistance," when helmets became compulsory for NHL officials. He also said there isn't a lot of discussion about the matter of the holdouts, although he intimated the bareheaded referees tend to give the same reasons as the players did for not wearing helmets or visors.

Paul Stewart, an NHL referee and former NHL player, does just that when asked why he doesn't wear one.

"It's comfort and feel," he said. "I find I'm more aggressive without it, more sharp."

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Stewart wore a helmet as a player "because I got hit a few times." He also found that his job as an enforcer meant wearing a helmet meant "it was easier to take a punch."

However, as an official, Stewart has had many reasons to wear a helmet. He comes from a line of bareheaded referees, going back to his grandfather, and his father, Bill Stewart Jr., was seriously injured when he hit his head on the ice during a college game in their hometown of Boston.

"The priest gave him the last rites," Stewart said. "We even took our Christmas tree down."

But his father recovered, and Stewart remembers only one conversation with him about wearing a helmet as a referee. "My father told me to do what I thought was right," Stewart said.

It took an old girlfriend to convince Stewart to try a helmet as a referee. But it didn't last long.

"The first time I wore one, [defenceman]Brad McCrimmon hit me on the head [with the puck]" Stewart said. "I said, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'What are you worried about, you've got a helmet.' "

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Stewart feels there is not as much danger for a referee as there is for a player, or even a coach.

"To be honest, the most dangerous place [during a game]is the bench," he said. "Pucks are always flying in there."

Van Hellemond doesn't think the argument of comfort is a valid excuse not to wear a helmet.

"If you give it an honest effort and try it for three weeks to a month," he said, "you won't even know you have it on."

Events off the ice, rather than on, prompted van Hellemond's decision to wear a helmet.

"I started getting a lot of questions at minor-hockey clinics from kids," he said. "They asked why I didn't wear a helmet when they had to. I didn't really have an answer.

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"And when I talked to a doctor at training camp one year, he said no matter how big and strong you are, one blow to the head can finish you."

Van Hellemond's fellow officials were no different than NHL players when it came to seeing one of their number try something new.

"Yeah, they teased me about it," he said. "I just told them that one day they'd put one on, too.

"I believed it was the right thing to do. And I still do."

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