The first Russian (and only the second European) referee in the history of the NHL has gotten off to a great start and hopes more are coming in his wake.
This might not be quite the same kind of milestone as the one in the late 1980s, when the Iron Curtain broke in international hockey and Soviet players were first allowed to go over to the National Hockey League. That one was a milestone to end all milestones. But it was mainly a political breakthrough, as nobody in the 1980s had any doubt at the stars from the Big Red Machine could, given a chance, acquit themselves pretty well in the world’s best league.
This milestone, however, is of a different kind. One could argue that the barrier the Russian official Yevgeni Romasko is breaking, in a way, may be a harder one than the old Curtain. While the NHL has had a solid three decades’ worth of success by European players, Old World officials have found it so much more difficult to get the proverbial foot in the door. In fact, Romasko is only the second European referee in the league’s history and, of course, the first Russian, having begun his NHL career earlier this month at a game in Detroit between the Red Wings and the Edmonton Oilers. One can rest assured that the momentous nature of this occasion wasn’t lost on anyone, Romasko included.
“I was nervous to the extreme,” said the 33-year-old native of Tver, Russia. “It was a very important day in my life and in the history of Russian hockey. But the emotions were mostly positive ones, because the NHL created a celebratory atmosphere around it. The NHL officials, the teams, the players met me warmly, congratulated me. I have never experienced anything like this in my career.”
In the referee room, Romasko was greeted by the off-ice officials who shook his hand. The fellow members of the on-ice crew gave him signed pucks. An arena worker gave Romasko a guided tour of Joe Louis Arena, where he was shown all the trophies on display, told the history of the building. Romasko recalls being very touched by the experience, having a personal connection with Detroit.
“I was asked a few months ago, if I ever get to officiate in the NHL, which city I would like to start in,” he said. “There were no guarantees, of course, but the league wanted to know my preferences. I immediately said Detroit, because I have some important childhood memories associated with it. My first coach, who taught me how to skate, is from Apatity, the same city [the Red Wing’s legendary defenceman] Vladimir Konstantinov is from. So, after I got my assignment, I called him to let him know that it’s to honour him.”
Konstantinov was also Romasko’s own childhood idol and the reason he, as a youth player in Tver, wanted to become a defenceman. Unfortunately for Romasko, that dream was not to be realized as he chose to quit hockey as a junior playing just a few games in the second-highest league for THK Tver.
“There were several reasons [to quit],” he said. “It was a tough time for my country, and I was faced with a decision on how to make money. There wasn’t much financial investment in hockey back then, and I decided that education was more important for me.”
As tough as that decision surely was, Romasko never closed the door on the sport he loved. Growing up as a neighbour of the future NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk (their houses were 500 metres from each other), the game had too strong a grip on him. As it turned out, becoming a referee was the best move he could possibly make, as it allowed him to reach the heights in hockey that he wouldn’t have reached as a player.
“Last summer, I attended the IIHF training camp for referees in Switzerland, and (the NHL director of officiating) Stephen Walcom was there,” said Romasko, explaining how his big break came about. “We’ve talked, and after the season started, I was invited to try myself in North America. They composed an AHL schedule for me, considering my workload in the KHL. So, beginning in November, I started flying back and forth and working a lot of games. There were times where I’d work about 15 games in 20 days, which is a very tight schedule. But I was able to immediately feel the gigantic difference – the difference in rink sizes, in styles, in the atmosphere, in the refereeing approach.”
He then returned to officiate games in the KHL. When the offer to try himself in the NHL finally came, Romasko had to make a decision by the end of February, whether to stay in the KHL or to make the next step in North Marica. A family man, with a wife and two children, he took his time to mull it over with the loved ones, and, their support assured, took the plunge. “I decided that I should try it, lest twenty years from now I regret never taking the chance,” Romasko said.
The biggest adjustment a European referee has to make is, of course, to the smaller North American rinks. As Romasko explains, on NHL ice one may not have to move as much in long bursts, but you need to learn how to take up the position properly so as not get in the players’ way, quickly change directions and pay close attention to the physical game, which is much more intense and pervasive in North America.
“Obviously, the players don’t have as much space, so there is always physical play, in all parts of the ice. This means you have to be about 200 per cent more focused: there is hitting going in in front, on the sides, behind you. You have to learn to take up the position in such a way that you can see the entire play at the same time,” Romasko says.
The physicality of North American hockey poses even more literal dangers for officials, especially in the AHL, where fighting is very common, and referees will occasionally find themselves “between a rock and a hard place”, as Romasko puts it. “It’s scary,” Romasko admitted. “You can’t not think about one of them catching you with a hook. But it’s our job.”
He is also quick to note that North American fighters are usually very professional about their duties and know very well what they are doing, which mitigates the danger to themselves and those around them to a degree.
Of course, where the former defenceman’s skills came really useful is the emphasis on skating, especially skating backwards, which, according to Romasko, is so much greater in today’s North American hockey officiating. According to his calculations, referees must spend about 80 per cent of the time skating backwards, which may explain his fortunes, as he has always been known as one of the best skaters among Russian refs. Still, skating and rule interpretation aside, a foreign ref in the NHL will face steep issues of a much more basic nature.
“The biggest difficulty and the biggest goal I have set for myself is mastering the language,” Romasko admitted. “Mastering the details, the nuances, the slang is something I am at every day now. Talking to people, watching TV and movies, all of this is takes a tremendous amount of brain work. It’s a good thing I am still at an age when it’s not so hard to expand your horizons.”
The linguistic skills are very important, because in the NHL there is traditionally a lot more verbal back-and-forth between the officials and players and coaches than there is in Europe. Players will often skate up to the referee to ask why they are being penalized, which is not a common practice in Russia, where, as Romasko puts it “we have disciplined them to the point where they would keep their distance”.
The NHL, on the contrary, has encouraged the rookie official to communicate with the players more in order to establish a connection, and “build bridges” within his new working environment. Calmly explaining his decisions to the bench is also expected in North America, as it tends to cool down the emotions and keeps the ref in control of the game. Not an easy task for a non-native speaker, but Romasko is taking it very similarly and does not want to delegate these duties to his native partner.
While he readily admits to being extremely nervous during his first game in Detroit, Romasko said it has been much easier since, and he is sure that the NHL is not about to stop there.
“It’s not a PR move (by the league),” he said adamantly. “Hockey is becoming more international. There are a lot of foreigners working in Russia right now. These are the processes in hockey right now. With players coming from everywhere in the world, the league wants to install some of the international mentality into the refereeing corps as well.”