DETROIT – It seemed like any other call on any other night in the National Hockey League. A stick came up. A player went down. A referee raised his arm. A fan high in the upper bowl, hundreds of feet away, thought he had a better view.
“Bull----! Come on!”
There was no hint this was history until the referee turned on his microphone and made the announcement.
In a Russian accent.
“Detroit penalty. Two minutes for high-sticking.”
The referee was Evgeny Romasko, who became the first Russian and second European to work an NHL game Monday night.
It was an important moment not just for him, but for the NHL and Russian hockey. Finally, more than a quarter century after Russian players started coming to the NHL in the last days of the Soviet Union, a Russian was wearing stripes and the NHL shield.
“To me,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov, one of Russia’s NHL pioneers, “it’s kind of a thrill to see a Russian referee doing the game in the National Hockey League.”
But now, 4:52 into the first period, all of that went away with a whistle.
“Forget about everything,” said Romasko after the Detroit Red Wings’ 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers at Joe Louis Arena. “Just game. Red color. White color. I think I was a little bit nervous, but after first penalty, I feel like myself.”
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For decades now, the NHL has welcomed Europeans and featured virtually all of the world’s best players. But it has continued to have North American officials, Canadians in particular. The exception: Marcus Vinnerborg, a Swedish referee who worked for two seasons, never got comfortable and went home in 2012.
Terry Gregson, the former NHL referee and director of officiating, used to teach in Europe. He used to scout talent. But for whatever reason – skill, culture, language – the NHL never found the right person.
“It’s not that we haven’t been looking,” said Stephen Walkom, the former NHL referee and the league’s current director of officiating. “We want the best officials. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. I can’t give you an answer why there aren’t more [Europeans]. But Evgeny is the best prospect we’ve seen in a long time.”
The NHL needs to expand its talent pool more than ever before, with a two-referee system, veteran officials retiring and the game evolving.
“The skill level and the speed of the game is much greater than 10, 15 years ago, and you’ve got to have new talent,” Larionov said. “There’s got to be high-end talent playing the game and high-end talent officiating the game.”
The NHL has developed a relationship with the IIHF through its participation in the Olympics since 1998. The IIHF has visited the NHL officials’ training camp, and it invited Walkom to come to one of its camps last summer in Switzerland. He went to see the IIHF’s future stars.
A KHL referee stood out. Romasko was big, strong and an excellent skater. He had what they call “presence”. He had grown up playing defense in Russia, dreaming of playing in the NHL. But he had chosen to become a referee at a young age because he needed to make a living and it gave him a better chance.
“It was a very difficult time for my country,” Romasko said. “A lot of players finish career, we have the same reason. I felt I can’t continue my career at a high level. I made a decision. Now I’m happy to be referee.”
The NHL wanted to bring Romasko to the AHL to see him in a North American pro league.
“We knew we wouldn’t have a problem with him saying yes,” said Bob Hall, the NHL’s senior officiating manager, scouting and development. “It was whether the KHL would want to release him. The very interesting thing is, they were very supportive of it. I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but to me, it gives them legitimacy. ‘Here’s one of our people going to the NHL’.”
Romasko is married with two children – a four-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. He left his family at home in Tver, a city about 2 ½ hours northwest of Moscow, and reported to the AHL in October. He worked 10 games over about three weeks, Hall watching every one.
Immediately it was clear he could handle the physical demands – the skating, the speed. Soon it became clear he knew the rules, both written and unwritten. He understood the game and its nuances. He understood battles, what was a penalty, what wasn’t. His English was good enough.
He went back to Russia. He came back to North America. He went back to Russia. He came back to North America. Three times, he made the trip, fought off jet leg and went to work. Hall told Romasko not to worry, that he was going to get a chance, to make sure he took care of himself. Romasko kept saying, “No problem.”
“I phoned Walkom and said, ‘We’ve got to sign this kid, like, now’,” Hall said. “Because of his age, we want to get him in the system real quick.”
Romasko is 33. Officials can stay in the game longer than players can, but their bodies break down, too. They have only so much time. The hope is that Romasko is still young enough to have a long career.
The NHL reached out to Romasko about an NHL minor-league contract that would put him in a pool with 12 other prospects competing for jobs. The NHL asked Larionov, now a players’ agent based in the Detroit area, to help in the process to make sure Romasko fully understood everything.
“I told him, ‘We opened the doors. Now it’s your opportunity to be on North American soil and be in an elite league and be an elite referee. I think this is a great opportunity, and you should grab it. This is your future. If something doesn’t work out, you can always go back and help the referees back home’,” Larionov said. “I’m very happy about this whole situation, that the league is getting some people from outside. That’s good. The talent has always been welcome in this country.”
Romasko signed in January, and the NHL decided to give him a shot in the show. So he was paired with Paul Devorski, the NHL’s most senior official, a 56-year-old with almost 1,600 games of NHL experience who plans to retire in April. After a three-game stint, he will work a game in the AHL, go back to Russia to see his family and come back to compete for a spot in the AHL playoffs. His family will join him in North America next season. Where he works – in the AHL or the NHL – will depend on how he performs.
“We have a lot of really great Russian players in the National Hockey League,” Walkom said. “Our hope – and our belief – is that one day we’ll have a great Russian referee in the National Hockey League, and Evgeny might just be that guy.”
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Romasko was so excited about his NHL debut, he couldn’t take a pregame nap. Devorski asked if he was going to sleep.
“No,” he said. “I read rule book.”
Joe Louis Arena was the perfect venue. The Red Wings were among the leaders in bringing over players from Russia. They had the Russian Five. They had the first Russian winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, Sergei Fedorov. Romasko’s first hockey coach used to tell the team he once had a young player named Vladimir Konstantinov.
Romasko dropped the first puck, with Russian star Pavel Datsyuk lined up for the draw. He called that first penalty – high-sticking on the Wings’ Marek Zidlicky. Then he called the second penalty – roughing on the Oilers’ Ryan Hamilton. Devorski reassured him, telling him those were the kinds of calls he had to make.
As the game went on, Devorski was impressed. Man, the guy could skate. He could sprint forward and glide backward effortlessly, keeping up with the play, finding angles to view the action.
“I’m watching him tonight like, ‘Oh, geez. No wonder I’m leaving’,” Devorski said.
Romasko had been worried about his English – he plans to take lessons to make sure he can communicate even better – but he made his penalty announcements clearly. He took control late in the game, telling Devorski a faceoff needed to be outside the Detroit zone, explaining it to the Edmonton bench.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m not going to argue with you’,” Devorski said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Good for him’.”
After the final horn, the four officials gathered at the Zamboni entrance for a photo. They walked toward their dressing room and fist-bumped Larionov, who was waiting just outside the door and gave Romasko an extra pat on the arm.
Datsyuk sent Romasko an autographed stick.
“I think he understood it’s ref’s dream to work in NHL, too,” Romasko said.
The Oilers’ Nail Yakupov came by to congratulate Romasko, who knew him and his father in Russia. But those weren’t the only well-wishers. As Romasko stood in the hall, Oilers captain Andrew Ference, a Canadian, happened to walk past. He smiled.
“First game?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Romasko said.