The NHL's newest referee is a 31-year-old native of Albuquerque, N.M., who learned to skate in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Meet Mark Lemelin, who worked his first NHL game Monday at Nassau Coliseum alongside veteran official Dennis LaRue and linesmen Greg Devorski and Brian Mach.
"My dad was originally from Sherbrooke [Quebec] and we were hockey fans growing up," Lemelin told NHL.com before the game between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. "But I actually learned how to skate in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. [My dad] was over there in the military and then working for a U.S.-based communications company. I skated over in the king's rink in Riyadh."
Lemelin laughs as he retells the story because the reaction is always the same:
Huh, come again?
"That about covers it for now," he responds, smiling.
Lemelin started his professional career in the United States Hockey League. He jumped to the Central Hockey League in Texas before moving to Hartford to start working games in the American Hockey League three years ago.
He has been working on his craft in the AHL since being hired by the NHL on Sept. 1, 2011.
Lemelin has officiated more than 45 AHL games this season.
"We came back to Albuquerque for the last two years of middle school and high school," Lemelin said. "I played high school hockey and that's when I started getting into refereeing because they were so short of guys.
"One afternoon, Leon Stickle, an old NHL linesman who was in charge of the Western Professional Hockey League, gave me a call and said, 'What are you doing tonight?' I had maybe worked 20 Bantam games and I was out there as a linesman in a semi-professional game because they had nobody else in Albuquerque.
"Now, this is a dream come true."
Defense the Focus in Tampa
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher said his team is spending 95 percent of practice and film study focusing on checking and playing strong defense because of how poor they were in their own end last season.
Tampa Bay finished the 2011-12 season last in the League in goals-against (3.39 per game) and No. 26 in penalty kill (76.2 percent).
"On the offensive part, we basically haven't touched much," Boucher said. "I spend 5 percent on the offense, just touching a little detail here and there, but the rest is all defense."
Boucher said the Lightning's defensive problems last season could be chalked up to a myriad of reasons -- personnel, goaltending, injuries, experiments gone awry -- but he is determined not to let it crumble again and ruin this season.
He won't even sacrifice a minute of the time he has to work on it for a tutorial on the power play, which also was problematic last season and finished No. 25 in the League.
"We've put the structure in for the power play, if they do great then good, but it's about 5-on-5," Boucher said. "If you look at the Stanley Cup Final last year, L.A. was horrible on the power play and same with [New] Jersey. The previous year, Boston was horrible on the power play and they won the Cup. It's not about the power play. The power play helps, but it's how good are we going to be 5-on-5 and defensively."
Hedman Ready to Fly
Boucher won't shield fourth-year defenseman Victor Hedman from anything this season, which means the towering defenseman should get plenty of time on the second power-play unit, likely in place of Marc-Andre Bergeron, who is a power-play specialist.
Hedman averaged a little more than a minute per game on the power play last season. He's already past two minutes per game this season, although it is a small sample size so far.
"As much as Bergeron is a power-play guy, we have to give Heddy some time there if he wants to improve on it," Boucher said. "He's not this young guy anymore, this puppy. He's a solid guy now and we can give him some time on the ice, some pressure. I think he can take it."
Thoughts on Tarasenko
With four goals and six points in his first four NHL games, St. Louis Blues rookie forward Vladimir Tarasenko made a strong first impression to scouts around the League, both in North America and abroad.
"Very exciting player to watch, one of those guys who can bring you out of your seat," a Western Conference scout who has already seen the Blues play twice this season told NHL.com. "He has the ability to create a lot on his own. [He] gets to top speed in a hurry, has a quick release, can beat defenders 1-on-1 with his speed and stick handling. I'm sure he is going to get tested along the way, but so far he has been special."
Tarasenko's hot start isn't a surprise to scouts in Europe, who have been watching his development the past couple of years in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"I did see Tarasenko quite a bit; I always liked him and felt he had the tools to be an NHL star," a European scout for a different Western Conference team told NHL.com. "As a junior his work ethic was sometimes up and down, but if he tries hard he will be an NHL star."
Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is not wavering in his confidence that his team will be back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite a mediocre start coupled with a MASH unit defense corps that can't lean on Nicklas Lidstrom anymore.
"This is what I know:" Babcock told NHL.com. "Every year you have to find a way to get [it] done and we're going to do it again this year. I don't know how, but we're going to do it."
Kent Huskins was signed to a one-year contract on short notice and tossed into the top six within two hours of arriving in Detroit. Rookie Brian Lashoff has become a regular, and Brendan Smith has been thrust into a bigger role.
"The bottom line is, let's play -- that's all," Babcock said, refusing to use injuries as an excuse for the troubles. "That's the way I look at it. Let's just play the games."
No False Confidence for Nabokov
The combination of speed, responsibility and aggressiveness the New York Islanders have shown in the defensive end this season is giving goalie Evgeni Nabokov a level of trust he perhaps hasn't had since arriving on Long Island.
Nabokov, though, doesn't want to assume too much too soon.
"Maybe it's the goalie in me that likes to play it safe, but I just expect them to play well just like they expect me to play well. We have to prove it game after game," Nabokov told NHL.com. "If you remember, I thought we started pretty well last year too."
The Islanders allowed six goals in winning three of their first four games last season. Then they won two of their next 16.
"That's why I don't want to go back and start comparing this and that," Nabokov said. "I just want us to take a course and keep going."
Odds and Ends
Heading into Saturday, 23 teams had played 26 sets of back-to-back games. They were a combined 8-16-2 in the second games, and the losers were outscored 68-38.
Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn's new salary-cap hit of $5.25 million is exactly $1 million more than Loui Eriksson's cap hit. Eriksson has been the first- or second-leading scorer on the team in each of the past four seasons.
Nathan Horton's goal for the Boston Bruins on Wednesday against the New York Rangers was his first since Jan. 19, 2012. Horton suffered a season-ending concussion three days later. He's played in all four games for the Bruins.
St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak has faced 27 shots in two home starts. He's stopped them all to give the Blues their first back-to-back home shutouts to start a season in franchise history. St. Louis gave up 69 goals in 41 home games last season.
Rick Nash finds living and working in New York City to be "awesome." The Rangers forward lives in lower Manhattan, near a few of his teammates. He said he loves the area.
Forgive veteran broadcaster Billy Jaffe if he forgets what network he's on. Jaffe is finding work this season with NHL Network, MSG, NESN and Sportsnet. He lives in Long Island, but Jaffe doesn't expect to be home too often between now and late June.
Wayne Gretzky's 11th annual Fantasy Camp gets under way Sunday in Las Vegas, and NHL.com and NHL Network will be on site. Scheduled to join "The Great One" are Mike Keenan, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Denis Savard, Chris Chelios, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Marty McSorley, Darren Langdon, Rick Tocchet, Kelly Chase, Russ Courtnall and Geoff Courtnall.
"It's completely different. Our schedule is different. The level of competition is different. The way you prepare for games is different. It's an entirely new experience. Everything is different."
-- Rangers rookie forward Chris Kreider, who played 31 games in the AHL this season during the lockout. He was a healthy scratch Thursday in Philadelphia after playing one shift in the last 40 minutes against the Bruins on Wednesday
"He does have big expectations, but you want to have big expectations for him. He's one of those guys that can put up 100 points for sure. He's that kind of player."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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