STOCKHOLM – “Swedish” and “pioneer” have appeared in the same sentence many times in the last half century of North American hockey. First, there was Ulf Sterner, the first European-trained player to skate in the NHL, during the 1964-65 season. Then there was Borje Salming, the first European to become an NHL star.
Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg formed the first international line with Bobby Hull in the WHA a short time later. Lars-Erik Sjöberg was the first European captain of an NHL team, with Winnipeg in 1979-80.
And, for the 2010-11 season, Swede Marcus Vinnerborg became the first European to be a referee in the NHL. He worked in both the NHL and AHL for two seasons, but last summer he decided to return home. He reffed in the Swedish Elitserien again this season and was, of course, nominated to work this World Championship in Stockholm.
“I had two great years overseas,” he reminisced, “but I spent too much time away from my family. I had 160 nights on the road, in a hotel room, by myself, in nine months, compared to 50 or 60 nights a season in Europe. My twin daughters just turned 15, so I want to be around the last couple of years while they’re still at home. It was my decision. The NHL wanted me to stay, and my family would have been happy to stay. It feels good to make the decision on my own, so I have only myself to blame if I regret it.”
Vinnerborg is a man of great integrity and experience, so he won’t regret it. But reflecting on life in the NHL, he realizes how fortunate enough he was to skate alongside the best of the best.
“The high quality of the game, night in, night out, was what stands out,” he continued. “And the speed, of course, on the smaller ice surface. If you don’t move fast enough over there, it hurts. So, I really had to speed up my backwards skating, my C-cuts in the corners, my anticipation of the game. I really had to work on those skills, and I did. I can tell the difference coming back now. I feel like some of the things I do now, I do faster.”
Refereeing a game is, in some ways, no different from watching on television. You can see what NHL players do compared to European-league players.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” Vinnerborg noted. “North American hockey is more intense, more physical, more dump and chase. Europeans try to control the puck more and create scoring chances by skating. That’s the biggest difference.”
And what about the two-man system on ice, during games? Is there a difference in communication or function? Is there an adjustment with how the officials work the games?
“They’ve had the four-man system a long time over there,” Vinnerborg explained. “They can bring a lot to the table regarding what to watch and when to watch and how to do it. We had very good pre-game meetings when we really discussed how we’re going to work this game, who takes charge here or who owns this problem. It’s all about preparation, no matter if you’re here or on the other side of the pond.”
While the aforementioned pioneers all contributed to the growth of the NHL game and the influence of European hockey on the NHL, Vinnerborg hopes he is not a blip on the screen but rather an inspiration to the next generation of European officials as well. And he believes the NHL is listening and watching.
“I don’t know what the NHL is thinking about those things exactly, of course, but I know they were happy with what we accomplished in these two years. It’s hard to predict, but hopefully I have inspired others to follow in my footsteps. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t happen at some time in the next several years. I just wish that every guy who gets the opportunity takes it. You learn a lot on ice and off.”
And what if Vinnerborg himself got the call again in a little while, once his kids had moved out?
“I like it over there, I really did,” he said with pride and nostalgia, “but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to happen. I’m not getting any younger. It’s not a goal of mine. Right now I want to be as good as I can with the IIHF and the Swedish league and be a part of the best game in the world. The hockey in this tournament is pretty awesome; it’s good enough for me.”