“It’s a hilarious trip I’m at”

Q&A with Europe’s first NHL referee, Marcus Vinnerborg

23.08.2011
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Marcus Vinnerborg is watching fellow referees skate at a camp in Zurich. Photo: Martin Merk

ZURICH – It was at age 38 when Marcus Vinnerborg had his first game as an NHL rookie. The Swede broke one of the last North American bastions in the NHL when he became the first European NHL referee last November.

Vinnerborg, who officiated in four IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games before moving to Canada, called 20 NHL games and 80 in the AHL in his first year in North America.

At the seminar of the IIHF’s and NHL’s officiating committees, IIHF.com sat together with Vinnerborg prior to his second NHL season to talk about his new life in North America.

Marcus, tell us what brought you to Zurich on these hot days in August.

I was invited by the International Ice Hockey Federation to participate in a seminar with the National Hockey League and to share with my colleagues and friends my experiences from last season.

What can you tell us about your first year in North America?

It’s been a very interesting year for sure. I’ve learnt a lot of new things. I’ve understood how big that continent is, and how much time you spend on the road as an NHL referee. It’s been interesting on all levels, both on the ice as well as off the ice. My family came over eventually, so it was a challenge for them as well. It’s been a real adventure, and we’re happy that we accepted the invitation from the NHL.

Every day has brought something new to my life, working with new colleagues, working in new buildings, working with not only 30 new teams, but 60 new teams as I worked in the American Hockey League as well. You take it kind of game by game as you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. This year is going to be a bit different because I have collected some experience. Hopefully I can benefit from my first year.

How do you feel about getting this chance of being the first European NHL ref?

We haven’t regretted the decision. It’s very fun and interesting. You have to feel very fortunate being 39 years of age and getting this chance because I couldn’t say it was a goal of me. Being part of that process, you have to say: “Wow! It’s a hilarious trip you’re at and you’re meeting so many great people all over the world.” It’s a dream come true for sure.

How was the contact with the NHL established, and what do you think did initiate the offer?

Actually you should ask Terry Gregson that question. The way it happened is that he asked me during the Vancouver Olympics if I were interested in coming over for three or four weeks in the following season. Of course I was interested in that. Then he gave me a call early May last year and said he couldn’t make it happen, but he had found 80 games for me if I wanted to have them instead, which was pretty easy to bargain. After that me and my wife had to take two or three weeks to discuss the different scenarios and came to the conclusion that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we couldn’t turn down.

How important was it for your career to officiate at the Vancouver Olympics, and to do so in blended IIHF-NHL teams?

I suppose it helped. Terry and the NHL organization needed to see that I could work at the top-level games with top-level officials from the NHL.

You officiated in 100 games last year. Have you ever been close to this number before?

I had 80 games in my contract and then the playoffs came on top of that. Back in Sweden I would work approximately 70-75 games, plus international games. I remember one year I worked 90 games in total. The big difference about living over there is that in Europe I spent 50 nights a season in hotels and over there it’s 150-160 nights. You spend a lot of time away from the family.

Was that one of the most difficult things to get used to?

The road trips are kind of tiring because if you don’t work that day you’re travelling. You always have to think about where to eat, where to work out, where to sleep and about getting a good balance in life. That was one of the toughest things to get accustomed to.

How important was your family in your “NHL Adventure”?

It’s crucial. Without them I cannot do my job. The family is the most important thing. Without them money and a job isn’t worth anything. You want them to be happy too.

What do you call home?

I live two hours north of Toronto in a small city called Thornbury. It’s maybe 6,000 people living there. It’s a nice area with lots of ski hills, golf courses and trails. It’s also easier to get into a community compared to living downtown Toronto with five million people. That’s also what we’re used to. We come from a small town in Sweden. The family enjoys living there.

Why did you choose this location?

(NHL director of officiating) Terry Gregson brought me there when we went for a house-hunting trip in August due to the fact that we had our training camp there. When we stayed at the hotel, my daughters – I have twin daughters 13 years of age – loved it. They love snowboarding and horse-riding and said let’s stay here. My wife will also work next season and is also looking forward to going back and meeting our new friends again.

You were used to talking in English from international games. Was officiating in English-speaking countries a big difference for you?

Of course there’s a speed to the language you have to the accustomed to. It’s pretty much the same like being a French-Canadian coming to the National Hockey League system, too. It takes a few years to get accustomed to the language.

Did you feel the players reacted that there was a European ref on the ice?

That’s tricky to answer. I don’t know the perception of the players. But of course the Swedish players congratulated me when they saw me first time in their games. They wished me good luck and said it’s good for Swedish hockey and European hockey.

What was the biggest adjustment for you in the North American game?

The small ice surface makes it a lot faster. The physical part of the game is more present. And also understanding the tactics of the teams; what are they trying to accomplish by that dump and chase thing. It took me a while to figure out what the next move of each team is going to be. Also the fights were a new element for a European referee.

Did it also change the way you were officiating a game?

I had to change my positioning for sure because my positioning I used in Europe doesn’t work in the National Hockey League. You have to keep your feet moving more and the corners are a lot tighter. You have to anticipate the game sooner, otherwise you get hurt.

How was it with the new environment, media and fan culture?

Media-wise it was easier to work over there because everything goes through the NHL office. You don’t get reporters calling you the way it happens in Europe. Fans-wise, they don’t have the groups that gather before the games, practise song and use instruments. It’s not that organized as it is in Sweden, Switzerland or Germany. But of course the buildings are bigger, they take 20,000 people. It’s pretty impressive. But once you’re out there you don’t think about the crowd. You’re so busy focusing on what’s happening.


Marcus Vinnerborg during the interview.

Which was the biggest NHL game for you?

Of course the first one was very interesting. I worked in Dallas. They played the San Jose Sharks. You’re of course a bit more nervous than in a top league game back home in Sweden. You don’t really know what to expect, but once you drop the puck you know what to do. It’s the pre-game anticipation that was very special.

My first game at Madison Square Garden was another big game for me. Vancouver was there. It’s a building you’ve heard of and you know since you were five or six years of age. Coming down to New York the day before the game, staying downtown at Times Square, taking a stroll at night, just watching people, walking to the rink the day after. Experiencing New York as a city was pretty overwhelming as well and it was a big game. I had to pinch myself that I’m really here.

What is the difference between calling games in the NHL and AHL?

AHL games are reffed in the three-man system to 75 per cent whereas in the NHL you always use the four-man system. Going back and forth, trying to adapt to a new system was a bit tough at times because I could work on an AHL game on Monday, an NHL game on Wednesday and an AHL game on Thursday. That was challenging.

Did you periodically have the same partners, or did you always officiate with a new ref in the four-man system?

I was with more or less new guys every night. The most I saw the same guys was maybe three or four times in a year.

Players often have idols. Did you have an idol?

I can’t say I had a single idol, but I tried to pick something from every good referee I saw working league games in my hometown.

So you always wanted to become a referee?

Actually, no. As most kids, you wanted to become a star player. At some point I had to make a choice between football and hockey, and later I started working as a linesman and changed to be a referee in 1994 and joined the top league in 2000.

Were there any special or funny situations on or off the ice?

The first announcement is hard to forget when you use the audio system on the link. You’re supposed to say: “23, San Jose, minor penalty, tripping.” But when I turned to look at the player, I saw it’s the white team and had a blackout. You can always say the colour of the team, so I could have said “23, white team”, but I was all over the place and said “white player, 23, minor penalty, tripping”, which is not so politically correct to say.

How was it to work with the video goal judge in the NHL? In Sweden or the World Championships you were not used to call a video goal judge in another city to make sure whether it was a goal or not.

That was pretty cool. The first time I put on my earphones and wanted to know whether the puck crossed the line or not I heard a voice asking “who is this?” I said: “Well, it’s Marcus Vinnerborg. I’d like to know whether the puck crossed the line.” He asked: “Where are you calling from, Marcus?” I thought... “Wow!” I turned around, it was my first game and I thought where am I? There’s a black team and a white team. I said: “I think I am in Dallas.” He started laughing of course and said: “Well, Marcus, I’ll see what I can do for you. I’ll be right back.”

It’s kind of a learning process as well. You should say your name; you should say where you’re calling from and what you want to know. I had the opportunity to call him again the next day from Denver, Colorado, then I said right on: “This is Marcus Vinnerborg from Denver, Colorado, I want to know whether the puck was redirected by a high stick.”

Do you think it’s better to have the video goal judge centralized in a league?

It doesn’t matter actually, as long as we get the call right. I think it’s good to have them in one location because the same people watch the plays night after night. But of course it costs a lot of money having it in a central location.

Let’s talk about your future. Do you intend to stay in North America for a longer time?

We just plan one year ahead. When I was in Sweden I was in charge of my career, and I could have worked there for years and we had a good life. But moving the whole family to North America means they have to be there as well. It’s a lot more about getting the family acclimatized and getting everyone understanding what it is about living in a new country and making a good life over there. Hopefully we will succeed and that’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to write long-year contracts. It suits us pretty well to sign one-year contracts.

Were there any games or teams that were challenging for you?

Every game has its challenges, especially when you come as a new kid on the block. You don’t know who the troublemakers are. You don’t know the coaches. You don’t know the rinks and the problems in getting there, the traffic. Every game is a challenge in a positive way. It takes a lot of effort just to get to the rink, to get organized. Officiating hockey is what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years of my life, but everything around was brand-new.

Was it difficult to get organized? Did you have to do it all by yourself, or did the NHL organize your trips?

I organize everything by myself. Travel, hotels, where to go, when to go, how to go. The NHL only makes the flight reservation through their travel agency, but hotels, cars, that’s up to me. It’s a learning process as well, but that’s why I have nice and helpful colleagues. My colleagues told me it takes you approximately three years to learn how to travel, what airlines to use, how to get to different places, where to stay, where not to stay, how to make it as easy and as efficient as possible. I’ve done my first year, so I’m on my way to do a better job. North America was pretty much a white sheet for me in the beginning.

I remember my first assignments in the American Hockey League. I was going to work Springfield playing Charlotte. So I started planning. I called the travel agency and said I’ll call a game in Springfield, and they told me: “No, you’re not. You’re going to Charlotte.” I had to understand that they always put the home team second. So I had spent one day only finding out what Springfield I was going because there are eight Springfields. It’s a learning experience, but now I know where Charlotte is, and some of the Springfields as well.

Did you miss the international tournaments last year?

To be honest, I was very, very busy getting organized over there, so I had no chance to miss it. When I was done, the season was done over there in Europe as well.

How important was the IIHF Referee Exchange Program for you that gave you similar experiences in other leagues in Europe?

The Referee Exchange Program more or less made it happen for me. That’s where I took off. That’s where I learned what it takes to be a referee at a high level. What I’m doing right now in North America is what I had to do one week in Slovakia, one week in Russia, one week in Germany, one week in Switzerland, one week in Finland. I went to six different countries in three years. Then you have to trust yourself, get accustomed to the hockey customs in the countries in two or three games.

Did you follow your colleagues back home in Sweden?

We stay in touch for sure. I’m still interested in what’s going on in Europe. I follow the transfers and what’s going on in the different leagues, and I follow my fellow officials all over Europe. Many of them are friends for life. We went through things they would never forget and you would never forget, so it’s fun to stay in touch for sure.

How did your fellow refs react when you got an NHL contract?

They reacted positively. The NHL is a new opportunity for everyone, so everyone wants me to be successful because it sends a good message to the rest of the hockey world. We have some good refs in Europe as well. And if I’m successful I might open the doors for someone else.

Can you think of one or the other referee who could make the same step?

There are lots of good officials in Europe, but I’m not going to name one of course. I’m sure there are other referees who could do exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m absolutely not an exception of European officials, I’m just one of them.

What are your thoughts about the next Olympics in Sochi?

They’re going to be good Games for sure. It’s not sure yet whether the NHL will participate, but Vancouver was fantastic, and I think Sochi is going to do a good job as well. To be honest, my thoughts are not in Sochi right now, but at the next exhibition game in North America. I have to focus on every game and learn as much as possible from that.

What’s your schedule for the next months?

I’m going to work a European Trophy game in Gothenburg, and then I’m heading over to Canada on September 2nd. And then we’ll have a camp for a week, and after that we’ll get going with the games.

How was the camp for you last year?

It’s a very professional camp with physical tests, medical tests, it’s fine-tuning, organizational things. You meet your friends, some of whom you won’t meet until the next camp. There are 75 guys there, and you won’t work with everyone. There’s a tournament as well and some competition going on.

What are your recommendations to your fellow European refs?

Of course the knowledge of English is essential. Especially in the four-man system we have to communicate in a good way under hard pressure during the games with the crowd going bananas. Every game and every situation has something to offer. Be open-minded and ready to create a team spirit. That’s very important. It’s not a one-man job; it’s a job of four guys working together.

MARTIN MERK


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