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Zupp puts away his whistle

The carnage was big. Nineteen game misconducts and one match penalty for a total of 360 penalty minutes.

It was his first B.C. Junior Hockey League game refereeing assignment and he fully expected the Vernon Lakers and Revelstoke Bruins to take liberties in the 1981 exhibition tilt.

Darren Zupp took the sinbin barrage in stride and went on to work close to 800 Junior A games since, earning several prestigious awards along the way.

Slim and trim at 42, Zupp feels like he could handle the fast-paced B.C. Hockey League for another five years. He is instead putting away his whistle and will coach his nine-year-old son Dallas.

“I loved it right away,” he said of the thankless striped life he began at age 12, earning $2 and a hot chocolate per game in minor hockey. “I had fun and it was challenging. Back then (in BCJHL) we had some colourful coaches like Rick Kozuback (in Penticton) and Muzz MacPherson (in New Westminster). They would yell at me, but they did it in a professional way, not demeaning or berating and that’s what was good about those guys.”

Zupp laughs about a game in Salmon Arm when he noticed MacPherson hadn’t changed his players after nine minutes of play.

“We asked him during the intermission why he kept that line out there so long and he told us they were late for curfew by nine minutes the night before.”

Zupp was born in Wetaskiwin, Alta., where he cheered on the senior Colonels and began playing the game at age eight. His family moved to Vernon a year later and Zupp, a big Ken Dryden fan, began playing goal in Senior Pups.

He backstopped the Vernon Juvenile Reps to the Canadian championship in the 1979-80 season after getting in a few games with the Merritt Centennials and Vernon Canadians the year before. He experienced a tough eight-win year with the Lakers in ’80-81 so knows the highs and lows of hockey.

“My first junior game was with the Vernon Canadians in Revelstoke and we lost 8-4,” he said. “They scored 19 seconds into the game and I was wondering what I had got myself into. I stopped Ron Flockhart (future NHLer) three times on breakaways so that was a highlight.”

A serious type whose other son Brenden, 7, can make him hit the floor laughing, Zupp estimates a career of more than 3,100 games. That list includes the Western Hockey League and a number of Olympic and NHL exhibitions.

He got the call for the 1998 Royal Bank Cup in Nanaimo and of the last 24 BCHL final series, he figures he refereed 18. A smooth, strong skater, Zupp is the BCHL’s longest-serving ref. He has survived three decades with consistent work and a willingness to listen.

“I’ve always had a good rapport with players. It’s just a mutual respect. I wasn’t a smart-ass, I never lipped anybody. I never had the gift of the gab so I never used that. I just did my job and was professional.”

While his No. 1 fan – his wife Karen – used to be bothered by the catcalls and insults hurled by fans, Darren never took anything personal.

“I tuned out most of it. I don’t hear the fans. And with the high glass these days, they’re just wasting their time.”

He said the famous Section B crew at Civic Arena simply added to the atmosphere of the game.

“They were always fun. They tried to get a rise out of me but all they got was a grin out of me. A couple of them I worked with. They would tell me, ‘We’re coming just to bug you.'”

Zupp fondly remembers a comment from Brett Hull of the Penticton Knights.

“I was doing a game in Summerland and Brett Hull said to me, ‘You know Zupper, you’ve gotta have fun out here.’ He was going to quit hockey and Penticton got him to play again.”

Zupp also lists past Vernon stars like Kori Davison and Scotty Longstaff and Vernon team owners Mel Lis and Duncan Wray and Laker coach Eddie Johnstone as class acts towards officials.

“I remember Wayne Naka in Kelowna saying to me,”Referees aren’t part of our game. If our players are worried about the referee, they’re not in the game.'”

Zupp, who has been a shift worker for 24 years at the glass plant, mainly cycled and roller bladed to stay in shape for officiating. He had just bought a house and was chasing his Level 6 card when he turned down an offer to work the WHL at a more serious level.

“The only thing I didn’t do in my whole career was make the NHL, but I met Karen and we have two beautiful children. I have no regrets.”

From opening night at the Multiplex to the double-overtime game seven of the Lakers-Olds Grizzlys Doyle Cup final at Civic Arena to the Allan Cup final in Nelson, where he sprayed freezing on an ankle he had sprained playing slo-pitch and called a major penalty on a Nelson player in the dying minutes, Zupp enjoyed them all.

He reffed a Canada-Russia game in Penticton, where Canada’s lineup included Eddie Belfour and Glenn Anderson and the Russians’ Alexei Yashin, German Titov and Valeri Zelepukin. He ended his career working a BCHL final series last spring in Salmon Arm, getting the standard $70 a game and mileage while as is custom picking up the post-game tab for his linesmen.

Zupp gives Mike Vandekamp of the Vipers, an eight-year BCHL veteran coach, an endorsement for “sticking up for his players.”

Vandekamp calls Zupp a BCHL icon.

“Every coach who has coached in this league is familiar with him and the players are familiar with him,” said Vandekamp. “I always thought Darren was a fair guy, an easy guy to talk to. He seemed to care and when you’re coaching and playing, that’s all you can ask for is a referee who cares.

“I personally thought he got better every year and I thought last year was his best. It’s too bad he’s retiring. I also liked the fact that he didn’t hold a grudge. Three days after a game, you could walk up and talk to him.”

Viper captain Mark Nelson, a four-year BCHL vet, liked the way Zupp handled games.

“He kept it pretty fair on the ice and had good control,” said Nelson. “He let the guys play and didn’t slow down the momentum. I liked it when he reffed. If you had a question, he had time to listen to you.”

Zupp won awards for BCAHA Official-of-the-Year and CAHA Most Deserving Official in 1993.