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Czech Republic native NHL's first non-North American full-time official

Suchanek never expected to become hockey pioneer

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- When the email came, Libor Suchanek was buried in schoolwork. It was four days before his degree examination, the culmination of eight years of study toward his masters in mechanical engineering. He was happy -- "of course," as he says -- but he couldn't break his focus.


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The email, though, would change the course of his life.

It was June of 2017 and Suchanek was being offered a minor leagues linesman contract by the National Hockey League, an offer that would be the culmination of a lifelong dream for so many. For him, that wasn't exactly the case. The Czech Republic native had never dreamed of a life in North America, of a job in the NHL.

"My plan was to continue to be a linesman in the top league, the Czech Extraliga, and work some international tournaments," said Suchanek, who started officiating when he was 15. 

Under his scenario, Suchanek, 29, would officiate in Europe. He would work as a mechanical engineer. The NHL? That wasn't for him.

He had good reason for his doubts. No European official had ever reached full-time status in the NHL, a position that Suchanek attained this season when he was upgraded from a 40-40 contract -- approximately 40 games in each the NHL and AHL -- to a full-time NHL contract.

There have been two previous non-North American officials in the NHL, Evgeny Romasko from Russia and Marcus Vinnerborg from Sweden. Both officiated in the NHL and AHL, but neither reached the Holy Grail: The full NHL slate.

Romasko and Vinnerborg struggled with the transition, with becoming comfortable in a different language, a different league, a place where they were not familiar with the ins and outs that they were at home. Suchanek, too, had his doubts.

"I was nervous," Suchanek said while helping out at the NHL Exposure Combine in Buffalo in August. "How will I handle the best league in the world, if I am good enough, and if I will have respect from players."

He didn't have to worry.

As director of scouting and development for officiating Al Kimmel said, "He got accepted right away."

As the NHL has expanded its search for officials under the purview of NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom, it has looked for talent in different places. It has looked to ex-players who might never have considered the career path. It has looked to those coming up through the lower levels. It has looked to Europe.

Suchanek came to the attention of the NHL officiating crew when he worked a game in Prague before the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with NHL referee Gord Dwyer and NHL linesman Michel Cormier. He was invited the following February to Toronto for three AHL games.

"All of our staff was there and watched him and we were happy, so last year we offered him a minor league contract," Kimmel said. "He settled in nicely with our staff, was accepted by all our guys and fit in really well and had a great skillset on the ice."

He ended up working about eight preseason NHL games, plus two in the AHL, and 81 regular-season games, with 37 in the NHL. He got the call for the Calder Cup Playoffs and then, this year, got the call to be full-time in the NHL.

He had help in his transition, living and traveling with officiating manager Chris Edwards for the first month of his time in North America, where he had been only three times. The NHL decided to settle him in Hershey, Pa., a location that was convenient for AHL and NHL travel, and where he will continue to live for the upcoming season.

Edwards had to help with credit cards and bill paying and banking and housing, with the differences in the experiences between Europe and North America.

In the Czech Republic, Suchanek was used to sleeping in his own bed every night. The games were mostly two or three hours away, with a rare five-hour trip. Officials would drive home after games, so he wasn't used to booking flights and hotels as he has to do in the NHL.

He, like all officials last season, had to learn about the new face-off standards. But he also had to learn about the coach's challenge -- something that made him nervous during his first few games -- and about sitting on the boards, which isn't done in Europe.

"I know what I can expect," Suchanek said. "So I'm more calm. It will be easier when the season [starts]. Because I came here and I met like 80 new faces, it was difficult just remembering the names because the new guys from North America, they watch NHL every game, every night, and I in Europe, just one per week maybe, so I don't know the guys, officials, in the NHL. It was very tough."

He made it through. Romasko, Kimmel said, never really did.

"He had to learn a new language, a new culture," he said. "Everyone admires him for it. Just wasn't comfortable. He's back home now and happy. It was stressful for him, trying to achieve and be the first guy."

That task now falls to Suchanek, who is fluent in English and tries to keep to English on the ice, even when approached by Czech players.

"Some guys knew that I am from Czech, but we just say hello or hi before the game, that's it, because they have to focus on the game. Same with me," Suchanek said. "Some guys they were very surprised to hear there is a Czech linesman."

Edwards tells of Suchanek's first preseason game, in New York. Suchanek said something to New York Rangers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in Czech. Pavelec was stunned.

"After the game, he banged on the door [of the officials' room] and the player comes in and he says to me, 'Can I speak? I'm sorry, I don't want to interrupt, but this is a big deal. You've got a Czech in the NHL as an official,'" Edwards recalled.

But for Edwards, it just makes sense.

"Our job is we have to put the best people in the NHL," Edwards said. "So why not?"
That's the idea, as they try to build an officiating crew that truly is the best of the best, whether -- as Edwards put it -- those officials come from Prague or Peterborough. And though he wasn't intending this to be his path, Suchanek is overjoyed it has worked out this way.

"It's like, I do what I love," he said. "So it's perfect."

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