Is the NHL ready for its first Russian referee? Evgeny Romasko sure hopes so.

The 33-year old official is currently working games in the AHL with hopes of donning the stripes for his first NHL game this season. Romasko’s spent five years in the Kontinental Hockey League, with 158 KHL games under his belt. He’s also officiated two international tournaments with the IIHF. Romasko worked the 2013 Under-18 Championship, where he refereed the Gold Medal Game between Canada and the US. The following year, Romasko worked the World Juniors in Sweden, where he made it as far as the quarterfinals.

Romasko is slated to work the 2015 World Championship Division I Group in Krakow, Poland, this April. Before then, though, he may be making his NHL debut.

KHL Referee Evgeny Romasko

KHL Referee Evgeny Romasko

NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom said the league signed Romasko to a contract after scouting him at an IIHF camp over summer.

“There were some phenomenal referees at the IIHF European camp I was at,” Walkom told the Edmonton Journal. “When they went to play hockey, you could tell that lots of them had hockey experience because they were yelling for the puck. But one guy stood out. [Romasko] was off the radar but he’d worked junior and minor pro hockey … He was a phenomenal skater. He had a game presence about him.”

Former NHL referee and current KHL Chariman of the Officiating Evaluation and Discipline Committees Paul Stewart echoed those remarks about Romasko’s fitness.

“Evgeny has excellent potential,” said Stewart. “Bar none, I think he is the best conditioned official in the world right now. He’s … both strong physically and an outstanding skater.

From the KHL to the AHL

This season, Romasko was invited to participate in the IIHF’s Exchange Program, where officials work in other countries to gain experience and improve consistency in officiating across Europe. As part of that assignment, he worked two games in the Champions Hockey League in the Czech Republic in September. After that, he found himself working on an entirely different continent.

Romasko headed over to North America, to begin working in the AHL. He made his debut on November 7, 2014, working a game between the Norfolk Admirals and the Syracuse Crunch.  Romasko has worked a total of 30 AHL games this season.

“He’s quietly worked some American League games after a lot of our scouts watched him and they were pretty pleased,” said Walkom. “They made sure he was good enough for a minor-league contract. He’s our only minor-league referee right now who hasn’t got NHL games but if [Romasko] continues on this path, it would be good to see him get some NHL work,” said Walkom.

The NHL’s other minor league referees, currently spending the majority of their time in the AHL, are Darcy Burchell (12 NHL games this season), Tom Chmeielewski (17), Trevor Hanson (16), Mark Lemelin (16), Dave Lewis (14), TJ Luxmore (18), Jon McIsaac (4), Kendrick Nicholson (2), and Garrett Rank (5). Nicholson and Rank, like Romasko, are in their first seasons under NHL contract; all three were signed prior to the start of the 2014-15 NHL season.

Romasko’s seen AHL action both alone – as the AHL still uses a one-referee, two-linesmen approach for a number of their games –  as well as alongside many of the aforementioned NHL referees working in the AHL.  Of his 30 AHL games, 20 were under the two-referee approach, which should help prepare him for NHL action.

International History

If and when Romasko takes the ice as an NHL official, he’ll be just the third man born outside of the US and Canada to do so. Linesman Jerry Pateman, who worked 650 games from 1982-1994, was the first. Pateman, though, wasn’t truly an international official. While he was born in the Netherlands, he grew up and learned his trade in Chatham, Ontario.

Referee Marcus Vinnerborg

Referee Marcus Vinnerborg was the NHL’s first European-trained referee

In 2011, referee Marcus Vinnerborg became the first foreign-born referee and the first foreign-trained official to work an NHL game. Vinnerborg worked 36 games from 2011-2013 before opting to return to Sweden.

Walkom told the Edmonton Journal that he has no concerns about Romasko’s nationality. “[It] doesn’t matter if he’s Canadian or American or Brazilian. All the players care about is his work ethic. They’ll judge him on his own merit, not where he’s from.”

Based on Paul Stewart’s experience, Romasko’s work ethic won’t be an issue.

“It’s going to take time and patience to develop him properly into a viable NHL official,” said Stewart. “I know him well enough to be certain that the raw materials and the work ethic are there. He’s willing to put in the time — and the miles of travel between games in the AHL — to make it happen.

Best of luck to Evgeny Romasko. We hope to see him suiting up for an NHL game soon.

UPDATE: Romasko, wearing #39, will make his NHL debut on March 9, 2015, working a game between the Edmonton Oilers and Detroit Red Wings.