Inside look at Evgeny Romasko, the NHL's first Russian ref, as he tackles a language barrier, a new country, a new life and a new game.
PHILADELPHIA — The black SUV dips into the loading dock at Wells Fargo Center and approaches the security booth. “Referees,” says a voice from the rear window on the hired driver’s side. Up goes the gate. Near the television trucks and chartered buses, out step three of the four men who will be charged with keeping order in tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.
Down the hall from the Zamboni tunnel that will be their eventual entrance onto the ice, the trio enters a locker room guarded by an NHL security official near a sign warning, “Absolutely No Visitors Allowed in the Officials’ Dressing Room At Any Time.” Inside there are pretzels and bananas on the counter, drinks in a cooler, and an industrial-sized bottle of aloe on the floor. The fourth member of the officiating crew arrives and each settles into a corner. Now, two hours before the puck drops, another league employee enters to take attendance. Some of the refs he remembers from other games. They are familiar faces on the circuit. The muscular one unpacking his bag beneath the television is new and introduces himself.
“Romasko,” he says, stating his uniform number, “39.”
His first name is Evgeny. He is 33 years old and the first Russian on-ice official—referee or linesman—in NHL history. In fact, he’s only the second such official ever to be trained outside of North America. The first was Marcus Vinnerborg, a Swede who lasted two seasons before retiring and returning home. Like Romasko, he had few problems with working games and adapting to the smaller rinks and rule differences. But Vinnerborg and his family were quickly worn out by the challenges that Romasko now confronts each day.
For players who are migrating from foreign leagues, an entire roster of new teammates will support their off-ice transitions. Buying houses. Finding restaurants. Learning the language. Wives and girlfriends often help their incoming significant other too. It’s a team effort. Officials, meanwhile, often travel alone. Sure, the usual game day routine—breakfast, workout, lunch, nap, rink—allows Romasko to ask questions of his colleagues. But the schedule offers few breathers. The rhythm is new and he has had little time to learn everything that must be known.
Last November, when Romasko flew from Moscow for his first North American gig—an AHL game in Syracuse, NY—he landed around 10 p.m. on a Thursday and worked on Friday. Whenever he had a few days free, he jetted back to Russia where his wife Anna and two daughters, Sasha and Miron, still lived, and he worked KHL games there. Exhausted from the back-and-forth, he often wanted to sleep on his 10-hour flights. Instead, he forced himself to study the NHL’s rules or practice English from a lesson book.
Unlike in Russia, where referees levy their punishments without explanation, Romasko found that communication was critical in North America. Coaches wanted explanations, players had objections, and Romasko would need to explain why he’d blown his whistle. If the result of a coach’s challenge, which the NHL implemented for this season, needed to be revealed, he would announce the decision, his words broadcast to the entire arena. In particular, he worried about this scenario. He felt confident that he knew the rule changes, but what if his accent got in the way? Would fans notice? Would they understand what he was saying?
“I have to jump this barrier,” he says, and he has, quickly. Last January, he officially ended his time with the KHL by signing an AHL contract with an option to work NHL games. He debuted in the big league on March 10 for an Oilers-Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which he chose (officials are allowed to pick their first game as well as other significant career milestones) because one of his coaches had told stories about working with former Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov. Now, with one hour until the puck drops for the ninth NHL assignment of his career, Romasko hangs up his suit and purple tie and sits on a folding chair. A round, browning bruise is caked into his bicep. “Slap shot in Syracuse,” he explains. He digs into his equipment bag and begins lacing his skates. Another NHL official enters and hands him a microphone. Romasko slips a resistance band around his thick calves and begins stretching.
With 35 minutes left, he wanders into the hall with his jump rope. Nearby, a group of Flyers are warming up by shooting hoops. Romasko stares at the floor, rocking on one leg, then the other. Whap. Whap. Whap. Ten minutes later, he returns to the officials’ locker room and chats with the crew about that night’s matchup—how the teams play, who to watch for, that sort of thing. They change into their stripes and march out in single file, past the color guard and camera crew. One of the refs yells some motivation. “Let’s go to work, eh?”
On an early November afternoon less than two weeks earlier, Halloween decorations still hanging from the bushes and windows in his Hershey, Pa., apartment complex, Romasko wore that same purple tie for the drive across town to officiate an AHL game between the Hartford Wolf Pack and the hometown Bears. Hershey, the hub of chocolate, loves its minor-league hockey, might seem like a strange place to settle, but Romasko had his reasons.
First, when he was around 15 years old, his junior team flew here for a holiday tournament. The players stayed with local families and played in the streets between games. He remembers seeing a lot of Christmas lights and getting whistled too many times for illegal hits, because of the different rules. “I sat in penalty box a lot of time,” he says with a smile, but at least this town felt somewhat familiar.
A defenseman by trade who eventually played for THK Tver in Russia’s VHL, the level below the KHL, Romasko developed shoulder problems at 22 that sapped his power and ended his playing career. Along came the director at his hockey school offering to help if Romasko wanted to become a referee. The director knew Romasko was a strong skater who understood the game at an advanced level. Romasko asked one question. “What do I have to do?”
His first assignment was at a Russian youth tournament. He brought black pants and received his jersey there. When Romasko played, he thought referees had easy jobs. “Just blow the whistle and make calls,” he says, simple as that. But he soon changed his mind. Shrieking parents and furious coaches can have that effect. As he rose up through the officiating ranks, he also worked for a trade company, signing contracts with restaurants to sell draft beer, but his day job performance suffered. His boss told him he had to choose. Romasko chose the ice. “It was a challenge,” he says. “I tried to find my place in life.”
And now life has brought him and his family here, a few miles from the Bears’ home rink. Hershey loves its minor league hockey and there are five NHL rinks within a three-hour drive: Washington DC's Verizon Center, Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center in New York City, the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, and the Wells Fargo Center here in Philadelphia.
From an early age, Romaso has learned to adapt to his life’s demands, washing a high school’s floors at night to pay for groceries, living alone starting at age 14. His neighborhood in Hershey has few other Russians, which he likes. He wants total immersion into the local culture, lifestyle and language. Recognizing this, the NHL flanked him with mentors to help him adjust, such as scout Chris Edwards, who traveled with Romasko after he arrived last year, and Hall of Famer Igor Larionov, who is now an agent in Detroit.
Another of those men had refereed more than 1,700 regular season and playoff games before retiring, and he was waiting in the parking lot at Romasko’s apartment complex on this day to caravan over to the Bears’ arena. He is another reason why Romasko based himself in Hershey.
“Because Devo lives here,” Romasko explains, hopping in his new American car and driving to Giant Center.
“Devo” is Paul Devorski, the well-respected son of a former referee. Devo vowed “no way in hell” he’d ever follow in his father’s footsteps ... until he finished playing hockey and needed a job. At the time, he was still living in Guelph, Ontario, where he grew up, but too many referees were based there and the Canadian dollar was worth 35 cents less than its U.S. counterpart. So he loaded up his car, drove across the border and made his home in Hershey.
Last year, as his 20-year career wound down, Devorski heard through the grapevine that a Russian referee was coming stateside. He knew few details, but when the schedule came out, Devorski was paired beside Romasko for the rookie’s first three NHL games in Detroit, Raleigh, NC, and St. Louis. They got along well. Maybe, Devorski laughs, because he has Ukrainian blood.
Still based in Hershey after working his last NHL game, Devorski became a valuable resource for Romasko. “Anything you need to know, just ask,” he told the Russian up front, and there were many questions. How do officials enter at the arena? Which hotels should he book? Where is the nearest grocery store? When Romasko’s wife and children immigrated in August and settled into their new apartment, Devorski brought over a chair, ottoman and couch for the living room. Over the summer, Romasko’s family came over for barbecue and swimming. “He was trying to suck in so much information in a short time,” Devorski says. “He’s a sponge.”
One time, Devorski recalls, Romasko called a penalty and the coach wanted an explanation. “Paul, can you say?” Romasko asked, fretting about his English. “I’ll go over,” Devorski replied, “but you need to explain.” It was the fastest way to learn, Devorski figured, and overcome what he called Romasko’s “biggest hurdle.” While Devorski had a vocal presence on the ice, Romasko was relatively quiet.
“He has to learn to be a prick,” Devorski says as he sits in the press box at Giant Center, watching Romasko work the Bears game. A whistle blows. Romasko raises his hand and signals a tripping penalty. “There’s a switch you have to work on,” Devorski continues. “The dick switch. Sometimes you have to turn the dick switch on and let them know who’s running the game.”
That part will come. It’s one more thing to learn. Fortunately enough, Romasko had already mastered the most critical skill for a referee. “Just watch him skate,” Devorski says. “If I had those legs…” It was this trait, not a booming voice or authoritative command or knowledge of how to work the dick switch, that first piqued the interest of Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, at an IIHF officiating camp in Switzerland where in Romasko he saw “natural talent” and subsequently invited the Russian to try reffing AHL games, with the opportunity for promotions with good performance.
When Walkom first called, Romasko thought he was talking about an officiating exchange program, something that Romasko had worked in Sweden, Finland and Slovakia. He didn’t think it would mean a permanent move, with his wife leaving her real estate business behind and Sasha starting kindergarten in a new country. But officials dream of reaching the NHL, too. Once Walkom clarified the details, Romasko had a decision to make. “You do your job and I will support you,” Anna told him, so off he went, hopping back and forth between the U.S. and Russia until his family joined him this year.
And it all led Romasko to make NHL history in Detroit on March 10, 2015 when Devorski let him drop the first puck, which has since been mounted and hung in Romasko’s apartment. Two Russian players recognized the achievement: Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov congratulated Romasko in the dressing room and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk autographed a stick.
“Great job on your first game!!!” the note from Datsyuk reads. “Best wishes!”
Back at Wells Fargo Center, seven minors and one fight between the Capitals and Flyers have kept Romasko and his colleagues busy, so he frequently finds himself flicking on his microphone and delivering concise calls.
Washington. Number 65. Two minutes. Kneeing.
Philadelphia. Number 14. Two minutes. Tripping.
When the final horn sounds on the Capitals’ 5–2 win, Romasko steps off the ice and returns to his locker room, third in line. Rob Shick, a former NHL referee, comes down from the press box and delivers the postgame review. “Hey boys,” he says, opening the door. These critiques are a regular element of the officiating life, and important for up-and-comers like Romasko. Just as he studies English, Romasko rewatches his games on an iPad. How was his positioning along the boards? Did he miss any calls? Should he have whistled the ones he did?
The eyes of the league are always watching, and ex-officials like Devorski are floating around to evaluate the rank and file. Romasko has received solid marks thus far. As a salaried AHL employee and one of 13 officials (nine refs, four linesmen) who have a hybrid contract, he still works mostly minor league games, but NHL assignments—and NHL money—come in spurts. He had flown to Philadelphia after working a Blue Jackets game in Columbus. The next day, he will leave for Dallas, then San Antonio. In all likelihood, Walkom says, Romasko will referee between 20 and 30 NHL games this season. Given his level of experience and the expected rate of permanent gigs opening up, he could sign a full-time NHL deal in two to three years.
Once Shick leaves, Romasko packs his gear into his bag. He showers and dresses, slipping on his purple tie. Highlights from the game are playing on television. There he is, calling a penalty, his announcement clear for the whole building to hear.
Before he leaves, he recounts a particular moment this night: when Alex Ovechkin asked, in Russian, how long Romasko has been in North America. Romasko had officiated KHL games during the 2012-13 NHL lockout when Ovechkin played for Dynamo Moscow, but he wasn’t sure the superstar remembered him. It was a pleasant and welcome surprise, another little reminder of home.
“I only officiate one more Washington game this year,” Romasko says as he hustles out the back exit and onto the loading dock. He’s promised Ovechkin that they will catch up then. For now, it’s back to his hotel and then on to a new city come morning.