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NHL Officials: Non-Canadians Virtually Need Not Apply

07/02/2014 11:20 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

Two weeks ago, I wrote at length about my lifelong appreciation for what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did for me and my family during my battle with cancer. I noted that I like both Mr. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as human beings and, on a professional level, I respect the overall job that they do.

That does not mean, however, that I agree with everything the League does or that I do not have some significant points of contention with certain aspects of how the NHL is run.

One of the biggest areas of frustration I have is the salutatory neglect the commissioner's office affords to those whom they selected to run the officiating and rule-making sides of the game. There are things that go on right under their noses that Messrs. Bettman and Daly are either unaware or simply choose to overlook.

A prime case in point: The hiring and promotion practices for on-ice officials. I have raised this point a few times before on HockeyBuzz, but my Huffington Post readers may not be familiar with the issues at hand. As such, I will reiterate some issues I have brought forth in the past.

Unless an aspiring NHL official is Canadian, the chances of being hired by the NHL as a referee or linesman are minuscule regardless of his skills and qualifications. If he is one of the chosen few non-Canadians, the chances of working deep into the playoffs are slimmer. The odds of being hired as a supervisor after your active career is over is virtually none. Oh, and if you were born and trained in Europe (with one token exception who was more or less set up to fail), you probably need not apply at all.

Basically, the hiring and promotion practices for NHL officials have not kept up with the times. That cheats the game and artificially limits the pool of qualified candidates.

I am not casting aspersions on any particular officials currently working in the NHL. I'll hasten to add that, without the Canadian-born mentors and colleagues who became as close to me as family members, I would not have had a career as an NHL referee after my playing days were over. One of my grandmothers hailed from Nova Scotia, and I have cousins in Cape Breton.

I don't care about national borders and I am most certainly not anti-Canadian. That's not the point. There is also no personal gain in it for me to champion this issue. I am 62 years old and retired as an active official. All I want to see, both for the sake of fairness and the betterment of the sport, is a level field where the best people get the job. Once a referee, always a referee.

As I noted, the demographics simply have not kept up with the times, and they never will as long as Bettman/Daly continue to allow their officiating department to have free reign to keep running things the way they have for years.

At the time of the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, there were about a dozen American-born players in the NHL. In the years since then, there has been a steady rise in the numbers and percentages of American players in the NHL.

By the start of the new millennium, the percentage of NHL players from the USA was about 15 percent. Today, it's about 25 percent.

The USA Hockey development program has grown exponentially over the years. Likewise, leagues such as the USHL have become viable sources for scouts to find NHL prospects.

The very same growth process has taken place with the tremendous expansion of the pool of highly qualified American-born officials who are worthy of serious consideration for NHL employment. Unfortunately, if you look at the demographics of current NHL officials, this is what you will find:

1. Nearly 90 percent of current NHL on-ice officials are Canadian. The rest are American. None are European. If you believe this is strictly merit-based, you also would have to accept the notion that, in order to be competent to officiate in the NHL, you must born on the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean and also hail from north of the St. Lawrence.

2. There are currently no American-born officiating supervisors in the NHL. There are also no French-Canadian supervisors. There are, however, some Canadian-born supervisors with no NHL on-ice officiating experience. There are people (all hailing from English-speaking Canada) with no on-ice officiating experience who are in leadership roles in rule-making and video review. Additionally, NHL officiating department does not routinely give alumni of the NHLOA the first cracks at supervisor jobs.

3. In the entire history of the NHL, there have only been four American referees given the honor of working at least one game in the Stanley Cup Finals. Here's the rundown:

My grandfather, Bill Stewart, and Bill Chadwick (the first American referee to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame) officiated in the Stanley Cup Finals long before the league expanded in 1967. In the post-Original Six era, there have only been two American referees to get this honor.

In 2009, Dennis LaRue worked in Games 1, 3, and 5 of the Finals. Chris Rooney worked the 2012 and 2013 Finals. This year, with Stephen Walkom back for his second stint as director of officiating, Rooney got sent home early.

Last December, I wrote a blog detailing the NHL-dominated selection of Olympic officials for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The same thing applies to the NHL's internal policies about hiring officials and issuing playoff assignments: From my observations, over the last quarter century, the process has been gone down the wrong path.

To me, the unfortunate turning point was the tragic passing of NHL officiating supervisor John McCauley in 1989. Things got derailed and have stayed off course ever since.

Let me give you some personal history here: The main reason why I got hired by the NHL in the early 1980s was to fill a quota. The NHL caught heat from the U.S. State Department about the lack of Americans they hired for League-appointed jobs.

There were no American referees in the League at the time I was hired. Kevin Collins, Gord Broseker and Dan Schachte were the only American linesmen. As a result, I was handpicked for the refereeing opportunity based upon my family ties and my physical attributes as a recently retired former NHL player with good size, strength and above-average skating ability. At first, my knowledge of the rulebook and how to run a game were as raw as could be, but I was guided through the painstaking process of learning the art of officiating.

I worked games in many different leagues before I made it the NHL as a referee. I was assigned to the Ontario Hockey League. I worked in the Western Hockey League; where I ran into my share of nationality issues. I worked in the ECAC. I worked in the AHL. Wherever I was sent, I went.

One year in the NHL training program, I worked 37 games in 39 nights in 4 different Leagues and a total of 144 games all across the U.S. and Canada.

McCauley said, "I am going to make you a referee or kill you with the grind; we'll see if you can take it."

When I was first promoted to the NHL, McCauley assigned me to work a lot of games involving the western Canadian teams.

I told John, "I'm happy to go wherever you want, but why western Canada?"

"They didn't like you out there in junior hockey, so let's see what they think of you in the NHL," he said.

That was McCauley. He was showing those who tried to put obstacles in my path that he was standing behind me. He was the type of supervisor whom you never wanted to disappoint.

When I used to travel to work games in Canada, I was sometimes harassed by customs agents who didn't believe I was actually an NHL referee. I recall one in particular who told me, "I don't know if we can let you in."

I said, "Fine by me. I'm here because I got assigned here, and I'll get paid either way. But there's a game tonight where they'll be expecting a referee to show up. How's your skating?"

When the staff grew to 34, American referees Mark Faucette and LaRue were also added. Later, Ian Walsh and Rooney were hired. There has been growth, but not nearly enough.

In my own case, I was extremely fortunate. I had people like John McCauley and Scotty Morrison who believed in me and taught me how to be a referee in the NHL.

Sadly, ever since McCauley's death, it seems that support system no longer exists. The people in charge of hiring and supervision do not appear to do things with the good of the game in mind, and it seems like nationality and/or personal connections are prioritized above skill. That frustrates me to no end.

Listen, I have supervised ECAC officials -- and have seen others in other collegiate divisions -- who are eminently qualified to work in the NHL: excellent skaters, strong rulebook knowledge, good feel for the game, solid positioning and consistent hustle, impeccable work ethic, you name it.

The same can be said for top officials in Europe. I work with the KHL and its feeder leagues, and I see officials across Europe who have the tools to become NHL officials someday. Sadly, they've got no prayer of being hired for an NHL job, no matter how hard they are willing to work for it.

A few years ago, the NHL hired a Swedish referee by the name of Marcus Vinnerborg. He worked mainly in the AHL and a little bit in the NHL, becoming the first European born and trained referee to work in the NHL. He worked his first NHL game on Nov. 16, 2010 and decided to return home in the summer of 2012. Vinnerborg worked 40 NHL games, all in the regular season.

Marcus is a very good referee, who is highly respected in the international hockey community. He calls a good game, is positionally strong and is a fine skater who can keep up with the pacing of today's game. He should have been a fine NHL referee, too, as he gained experience. Unfortunately, he was set up to fail by his supervisors in the NHL.

Here is what I mean by "set up to fail": Vinnerborg was given no mentoring and very little help in general in making the adaptation to the North American game while coping with being away from his wife and kids. As such, it was no surprise that he didn't last long over here. The talent and work ethic were there but there was no support system put in place for him the way that people like McCauley, Morrison and Frank Udvari took me by the hand and coached me along the path with a lot of tough love along the way.

For example, rather than having someone travel the AHL circuit with Vinnerborg to show him the ropes, he was basically thrown to the wolves. He'd get an assignment in, say, Albany and be expected to get himself there. Additionally, there was a lack of constructive feedback provided to him after games.

What was Marcus doing right? What areas did he need to improve and how could he get there? None of that wisdom and coaching was ever provided to him. I suspect it was deliberate (if not, it was out of sheer ignorance of the proper way to oversee an official's development).

During his brief time working for the NHL, Vinnerborg was left isolated an ocean away from his family, with seemingly none of his bosses in his corner over here. He was given little to no coaching on making the adjustment to the smaller-rink game.

It was inevitable that he'd struggle to adapt. It was also inevitable that the "experiment" would be declared a failure by the powers-that-be in the NHL officiating department and there have been no serious attempts since then either to improve the process or actively seek other candidates.

Will promising European officials or the vast majority of American candidates ever get a sniff at being hired by the NHL? Nope. The Titanic will make it to New York before they get hired.

It's a shame: a shame for these guys, a shame for the NHL, and a shame for the game as a whole. People talk about wanting to improve the pool of officials in the NHL and elsewhere. I'm all for it.

To do that, we need to forget about where the official comes from and focus only on whether he can do the job. Forget about nationality. Forget about friends and family ties. Forget whether his political views match his supervisors'. Forget all of that nonsense. Focus only on whether he can do the job at the NHL level.

The NHL's officiating department has no inclination to reform the way it does things. They enjoy their virtual immunity from being held accountable, and aren't about to call attention to areas where they need to get with the times. As such, it's up to the Commissioner's office to take a serious look at the issues I have raised.

******

Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.