DETROIT – As a teenager playing in Russia, Evgeny Romasko idolized former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov.
So when the National Hockey League asked the 33-year-old rookie referee where he’d like to work his first assignment the answer was easy. Even though he’d only seen Joe Louis Arena in grainy videos on the Internet, the legendary building is where he wanted to make history on Monday night.
“I think this stadium has a great story,” Romasko said prior to becoming the first Russian-born official to ever work an NHL game.
“When I played hockey I had a dream to play in NHL,” Romasko said in broken English. “Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to play. I finished my (playing) career 16 years ago and now I got the chance to work in the NHL. It’s great. I’ve had in my life just three days when I was happy like here – first and second day was with the birth of my children and this is my third happiest day of my life.”
Romasko’s debut comes nearly 33 years after Viktor Nechayev became the first Russian-trained skater to play in the NHL. In 1982, the Los Angeles Kings drafted Nechayev, a 6-foot-1 center, who was born in Siberia. He eventually played just three games with the Kings in 1982-83.
The importance of breaking the Russian barrier in the world’s best league wasn’t lost on Romasko Monday afternoon as he arrived at The Joe.
“I think it’s very important and a high level of responsibility,” he said. “I think NHL is very, very important in the world because millions of people watch games every day. All of your decisions are very important. It’s a challenge for myself and I think I’m lucky to have a chance to work here now.”
Romasko once played defense for the same man who coached Konstantinov in a small town north of Moscow.
“This coach is like a second father for me,” Romasko said. “When Vladimir Konstantinov was a young player he lived in the same city where my coach lived before. He told me a story about this great player and I think it will be a pleasure for him that my first game will be here tonight.”
It’s been 18 years since Konstantinov, at the peak of his career, was seriously injured in a limousine crash. He’s still a frequent visitor to Wings home games, though he did not attend Monday’s game.
“I liked his style,” Romasko said. “A very strong guy, and I tried to play his style of hockey. … I watched a story about his life on the web sites. If we meet it will be good.”
Romasko officially etched his name in the annals of hockey history when he dropped the puck between Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk and Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to start Monday’s game.
The league did its part by giving Romasko an experienced mentor in his first game. Paul Devorski, the senior-most referee, worked career game No. 1,577 on Monday night.
“This guy is making history tonight. That’s pretty cool,” said Devorski, who will retire at the end of the season and was working his final game in Detroit.
Romasko had been working in the Kontinental Hockey League and the American Hockey League this season, including a few games that involved the Red Wings’ affiliate in Grand Rapids. Of his 30-plus AHL contests, two were Griffins games at San Antonio on Feb. 13 and at Chicago on Feb. 15.
“I know all of our (NHL) guys will be watching this game at home to see what he can do because he’s probably worked 30-40 games in the American League and he’s done well,” Devorski said. “They’re moving him up quick.”
Romasko called his first NHL penalty when he sent Red Wings defenseman Marek Zidlicky to the box for high-sticking the Oilers’ Rob Klinkhammer at 4:52 of the first period.
“I read his name this morning and I was wondering if it was a Russian referee. I didn’t know for sure,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “But that’s great. Obviously, the international game we’ve got lots of great Russian players and it’s great that there’s good refereeing all over the world. I think when you get a chance to ref in the National Hockey League and then you get to go back to your country and you get to make the referees in your own country better – just with your experience – I think it’s a real positive thing for hockey.”
In 2010, Swedish referee Marcus Vinnerborg became the first European to work an NHL game. He officiated more than 40 games in the league before retiring in 2012.