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Hockey community rallies around referee John Coleman, battling brain cancer

By Ross Forman, 06/12/23, 5:15PM CDT


John Coleman called Mike Nargie one day last November to cancel a peewee game he was assigned to officiate two days later. Coleman was calling the Illinois Hockey Officiating Association (IHOA) assigner and, ironically, his partner for that game.

 Coleman needed out of the game as he had lost feeling in his right arm, which he thought was a pinched nerve.

He went to the emergency room the next day and a scan found a mass on his brain.

Last December 9th, the 54-year-old Coleman – a married father of two teenage daughters who has been an on-ice official in Chicago and his native Canada for a combined 30 years – had brain surgery to remove the mass.

And last December 28th, he met with his oncologist, where he was told it was uncurable and doctors did not know how much time he had.

“I was mostly worried for my children and wife,” said Coleman, who lives in Huntley and is the general manager for a contract security company. “I have 13- and 15-year-old girls, both of whom are interested in sports, mostly softball. Both of my girls are diehard Toronto Blue Jay fans because of me, and we watch all the games together.

“It’s obviously disappointing, knowing I (might not) be able to walk them down the aisle (for their weddings), teach him how to drive, attend graduations, play with their grandchildren, but we are keeping positive and fighting for every minute we can get together as a family.”

Coleman, originally from Nova Scotia, also lived in Toronto before moving to Chicago. He has three brothers and one sister, and all three of them also officiate hockey, as did his late father.

Coleman played high school hockey in Nova Scotia and recreationally in Chicago.

Officiating has been a three-decade journey across two countries, where he reached Level 4 status and has officiated youth, high school and college games, plus every level of AAA action.

Now, though, his skates are packed away as Coleman battles terminal brain cancer.

“I spent three weeks in in-patient rehab, concentrating on speech therapy as well as all physical activities. I was able to get strong enough to leave the rehab center and can now function well enough to take care of myself,” Coleman said. “Out-patient rehab continued for three months to assist me getting stronger.”

But still, the past six months have been a struggle, emotionally and physically. After all, he’s endured surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – and will continue with his treatments into September.

“I have brain scans every two months to monitor the growth of the tumor,” he said. “There is a treatment that I’m utilizing called optum, which I will have to wear for the remainder of my life. It is used to slow the cell development of the tumor.”

Coleman’s local officiating career has taken him all over the Chicagoland area, though in recent years he’s primarily worked at Canlan Sports in West Dundee, mostly with Nargie. There were years he’d work 45 games a month for IHOA. He also was a linesman for the 1997 high school championship game at the United Center.

His last game officiated was Nov. 13, 2022.

“Over the past six-plus months, I have felt all of the emotions and feelings during such a life-changing situation,” he said. “This also has affected by wife and children as they have had to pick up the slack and help with everything, every day. My kids have had to grow up quickly. They have to get good grades and are now integral in the everyday activity of the household. My wife works full-time and is now expected to complete all the day-to-day functions of the household, including caring for me and my needs. She has been my savior.

“Officiating was, for years, an integral part of my everyday life and I had so much fun officiating with the guys; I miss it a lot,” he said.

Nargie said Coleman turning back their games late last year was totally out of character for him. “This proves how fragile life is and how fast things can turn on an individual and their family,” said Nargie, of the AHAI Assigner Committee. “John is blessed with an incredible wife, children, and supportive family to help work through this difficult time.”

The local hockey community has certainly rallied around Coleman. IHOA, for instance, is holding a golf tournament on June 30th in Elgin with funds raised going to the Coleman family.

“The hockey community has the greatest people in the world,” said the emotional Coleman. “Everyone has been great. It’s been great to see how much people care and are willing to help.

“I’ve become less private (over the past six-plus months) and have been sharing my story more so everyone can understand the difficulties of what cancer brings to families.”

Said longtime local referee Jack Raslawski has been friends with Coleman for years. “On and off the ice, he is nothing but a class act,” Raslawski said.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist the Coleman family. To donate, go to:

To register for the June 30th golf tournament to benefit the Coleman family, go to: