Why it’s tougher than ever to become an NHL referee

Referee Evgeny Romasko, right, watches in the first period of an NHL hockey game as Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) waits for a face-off against the Edmonton Oilers in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Romasko became the first Russian referee in NHL history. (Paul Sancya/AP)

It’s a new National Hockey League season and there’s a fresh crop of zebras, as the transformation of the NHL’s officiating department continues.

There was a time not long ago when an NHL official had a job for life, once he got inside the ropes. But as the speed of the game has increased, the life expectancy of an NHL referee has gone in the other direction. Now, with officiating combines and an international search underway for the best from all the hockey playing countries, donning the stripes in an NHL game isn’t nearly as easy as it once may have been.

“It’s forced us to find officials with a skating skill-set that is necessary to keep up to today’s game,” the NHL’s director of officiating Stephen Walkom said from Buffalo, N.Y., where the annual NHL officials training camp is taking place. “You have to be a great skater on both edges. Transition forwards to backwards. Move in, out and all around with the speed of the game.

“We’re looking for athletes,” he said. “The days of not being athletic as a referee are long gone.”

And if that athlete comes from a little town outside Moscow called Tver — the same place that gave us Ilya Kovalchuk — all the better. Russian referee Evgeny Romasko has been hired on as a full-timer, but will still split games between the American Hockey League and NHL this season, having passed the test during five NHL assignments last season.

“Evgeny is the first Russian referee we’ve ever had in the NHL,” Walkom said of the 33-year-old former KHL referee. “The NHL just wants the best officials in the world, and unfortunately many of the countries who have players don’t have accelerated development programs to get officials to the highest level. So, by the time they get their opportunity, they’ve only got a few years left.

“Evgeny isn’t here because he’s Russian. He’s here because he’s an exceptional official. English is the official language of the NHL, but it can’t hurt to have a second language (on the ice).”

Romasko has settled in Hershey, Pa., the home of recently retired referee Paul Devorski, who has volunteered to help acclimate the young referee to North American life.

Romasko may be the face of the changing landscape, but today it is an entirely new recruit who joins the ranks of the NHL Officials Association compared to only a few years ago.

Almost all of this season’s hires are former junior, university or pro players, many of who were recruited through a visit to their club’s dressing room by Walkom or a colleague.

• Referee Jake Brenk was a fifth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2001, chosen ahead of players like goalie Mike Smith, winger Brooks Laich and defencemen Dennis Seidenberg and Marek Zidlicky. “He too is a phenomenal skater,” Walkom said of Brenk, who never made it past the ECHL after a career at Minnesota State University — Mankato.

• Linesman Garrett Rank worked first NHL game last January and also worked the Calder Cup finals, a product of the University of Waterloo Warriors. He is also ranked 237th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and tied for 148th spot this summer at the RBC Canadian Open.

• Linesman Brandon Gawrylitz played at the University of Alaska and for the Trail Smoke Eaters of the BCJHL. Six-foot-four linesman Ryan Gibbons was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in Rd. 6 after a long WHL career. His playing career stalled in the ECHL, but Gibbons found his calling as a linesman through one of the NHL combines.

“We started this combine two years ago. It’s who we’re hiring now,” said Walkom, who also listed Joey Mullen’s son Matt as an up and coming prospect. “Three, four years down the road we’ll have more highly qualified guys than we have jobs.”

And that’s the kind of competition that every good team requires.