The “yup, still got it!” phase of his career apparently over, referee Stephen Walkom has been promoted back to senior vice president and director of officiating for the NHL after leaving that post in 2009 to return to the ice.
His replacement, Terry Gregson, announced his retirement on Wednesday. Gregson worked under Walkom before taking the NHL’s top officiating job in Sept. 2009.
Under his watch, standards of enforcement on several penalties slipped, despite his labeling modern NHL officiating as there being “less gray area than there used to be.” Not to mention the scourge embellishment that has turned farcical in recent years. Gregson’s tenure had vocal critics, but that comes with the territory.
So Walkom returns to the job. From the League:
"We are fortunate to have someone with Stephen's on- and off-ice experience ready to step in to this position," said NHL Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell.
"From 2005 to 2009, Stephen provided tremendous direction and guidance to our team of officials as the League implemented several rule changes that brought more flow and speed to our game. That management experience, combined with the fact that he has been back on the ice as a referee for the last four years, will be of tremendous benefit to the League and the game."
His return to the ice was marred by the most embarrassing moment of 2013 for the NHL that didn’t involve a work-stoppage or Ilya Kovalchuk.
Walkom will be forever remembered for the matching minors on Kyle Quincey and Brandon Saad that negated a Niklas Hjalmarsson potential game-winning goal with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks went on to win in overtime – on Brent Seabrook’s game-winning goal, Dave Bolland of the Blackhawks appeared to get away with a boarding penalty on Gustav Nyquist, who gave up the puck – but the moment lives in infamy, including the fact that Walkom was allowed to officiate the following round after that folly. Hey, it’s good to have friends in high places …
(Let's please note the irony that the official who bemoaned too much "gray area" in NHL officiating is being replaced by the guy who tarnished his reputation by calling matching minors "by the book" in a Stanley Cup Playoffs Game 7.)
Say what you will about Walkom, but his time as the NHL’s head of officiating was, for the most part, positive for the League. When he wasn’t calling in favors to help his boss’s son, of course...
From Scott Burnside back in 2009, citing Walkom’s work after the 2005 lockout:
It was Walkom who worked with the league's 33 referees, 34 linesmen, teams and players to explain how the game was going to be called. And then, they made it work. It wasn't easy, but eventually the players learned to play within the new standards, and the game is as fast and entertaining as it's ever been.
"The game is in a great place right now," Walkom told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The officials' team is in a good place. We've really evolved as a team."
Walkom joked that he made himself obsolete as the officiating changes have trickled down to all levels of hockey, meaning new generations don't have to relearn the standards.
We sometimes lose sight on how dramatically the game changed after the 2005 lockout, because those rules changes have become commonplace. For many players and officials, it was practically re-learning the game from an offensive and defensive perspective, and some of them had to leave the NHL after becoming obsolete.
Brendan Shanahan will forever be remembered as the catalyst for those new rules and, as an executive, the man who led an overhaul of the NHL’s supplemental discipline system. But Walkom did some very quiet, very heavy lifting in the years following the lockout. So it’s interesting to see him return to the role at a time when those standards of enforcement have, by the NHL’s own admission, slipped.
But his return to upper management comes at a cost for Walkom. His heart wasn’t in the job anymore back in 2009 – it was back on the ice, where he had been an official since 1990. That’s what brought him back to wear the stripes, and one got the sense he was happy there.
Perhaps his return was necessitated by Gregson’s departure. Perhaps Campbell asked him back to continue moving the League's standards of enforcement back to a consistent level.
Whatever the case, Walkom gets his NHL HQ desk back and comes off the road, which will allow him to watch more of his daughter as a Penn State hockey player. The NHL loses a veteran official on the ice – those ranks are thin to begin with – but reacquires someone they trust as the league’s police commissioner.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Old contract shows how referees' pay has changed
• Wayne Gretzky was babysitting Robin Thicke when traded to Kings
• Andrew Shaw auctioning face stitches for charity