BURLINGTON, Canada – To a lifelong student of Russian hockey, the printing on the back of the striped jersey was unmistakable.
Spelled out in 11 capital letters, almost making it too long to fit, was the name Kudryavtsev. It seemed so out of place in the tiny 700-seat Appleby Ice Arena in Burlington, Ontario, where I was covering a Family Day matinee game between the Burlington Cougars and Toronto Lakeshore Patriots.
Yet the sturdy, slick-skating linesman wearing the zebra’s shirt was performing like a pro, this in the Ontario Junior A League.
Denis Kudryavtsev, 31, was born in Tver near Moscow. He played for Tver and Spartak St. Petersburg in the Russian Major League, but had to retire early because of back and neck injuries. He had been playing hockey since the age of 6.
Kudryavtsev came to Canada in 2006 with his wife Tatyana and wanted to stay in hockey in some capacity. He googled ‘referee program’ on the internet and found the Greater Toronto Hockey League had an officiating clinic.
Shawn Campbell, a referee from Hamilton who also was attending, gave him some contacts in the steel city and. After obtaining his Level 2 certification, he was assigned to work a few youth games in the Hamilton Reps organization by Sergio Pinto, an executive member of the Reps.
The following year he obtained his Level 3 certification at an Ontario Hockey Association in London, where he met Bob Morley, an accredited IIHF official who was the assigner for OHA games in the Hamilton-Niagara area.
After obtaining his Level 4 certificate he eventually started getting assignments as a linesman in the OHA.
Although he had visited Sweden a couple of times with youth teams from Tver, it was his first time in North America.
“We just decided to try it and see how it worked out,” he said.
Kudryavtsev has officiated in the Ontario Junior A League, Ontario University Athletics league and Ontario Senior League. His wife Tatyana works in Hamilton and the family lives in an apartment downtown. The couple has one daughter Eva, who is four years old.
He is in his third season as a linesman in the Junior A League and is a familiar sight at arenas in southern Ontario.
Kudryavtsev says he never even thought about becoming an official when he was living in Russia. After retiring as a player, he worked as a sales representative for a video store. He now works nights in Mississauga, so he is available only for weekend games or a rare weekday afternoon.
However, Morley said it’s not a problem because almost all OHA officials also have regular jobs.
“Denis has a great work ethic and is a well-respected official,” he said.
While growing up in Tver, Kudryavtsev played with Ilya Kovalchuk, Ilya Nikulin, Alexei Tereshenko, Denis Denisov and Alexander Yeremenko, all of whom went on to play for the Russian national team, and Olexi Ponikarovsky, who represented Ukraine.
“Kovalchuk always was a team player,” he said. “He helped me out a lot both on and off the ice. He’s just a good person in general.”
A graduate of Tver State University, Denis holds a bachelor’s degree in sport. He knew a little English before he came to Canada, but learned most of it after he arrived.
During the 2010-11 season, he was assigned to line an exhibition game between the Russian Red Stars, an all-star team from the Russian junior league MHL, and the all-stars of the Golden Horseshoe Junior B League in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Former NHLer Rick Natttress, a Stanley Cup winner with Montreal, was coaching the Ontario team. By coincidence, the Russian coach was former NHLer Alexander Semak, who played and coached in Kudryavtsev’s hometown Tver after his career in North American was finished.
“It was funny how things played out,” Denis said. “I’m a Russian. To be part of that game was an awesome experience.”
Having got a late start in officiating compared to many of his Canadian counterparts, he says he’s not going to bust a gut to try to get into the pro ranks.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m happy where I am.”
Sweden’s Marcus Vinnerborg was the first European to referee in the NHL. He officiated in 40 games over two seasons before returning to his native land in 2012. Vinnerborg helped destroy the myth in Canada that European officials cannot compete at that level.
Todd Anderson, head of officiating for Hockey Canada, said he is not aware of any other former player from Europe officiating in Canada.
“But we have 34,000 officials in Canada, it would be pretty hard for me to know that,” he said.
Every two years European delegates travel across the Atlantic for Hockey Canada’s Level 6 Officiating Program.
“The doors are open to the federations,” Anderson said. “But to start moving people back and forth for league play, we’d have to work with the local branches and we’re not quite there yet.”
Anderson said a couple of European officials have contacted him about the possibility of coming over, but he hasn’t heard from them lately.
Finland’s Johanna Tauriainen, who will work at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Ottawa, paid her own way to officiate in a tournament in the Montreal area and Hockey Canada brought Joy Tottman of Great Britain over to work a female Under-22 series between Canada and the U.S. Tottman also officiated at the Mississauga Christmas Tournament in the 2010-11 season while she was visiting her fiancé’s family in Burlington.
And there are North Americans who went the opposite direction.
A native of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, Brent Reiber left Canada to officiate in Japan and now is one of the top officials in Switzerland. He was one of two referees in the gold medal game of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship between Russia and Slovakia.
Former WHL official Al Smith worked in the Danish League, helping with development there, while ex-NHL officials Lyle Seitz and Stephane Auger now are working as supervisors of officials in Austria.
Anderson said the quality of European officiating is improving.
“The IIHF does a fantastic job working to develop top level officials,” he said.