Why NHL owes Stephen Walkom
The day after NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom announced he was closing his office and putting on his referee's jersey again, his colleagues in the officiating fraternity sent him a fruit basket.
No deep-heating liniment or other gags that might have reminded Walkom that he just turned 46 and will be returning to the ice as a referee for the first time in four years when the 2009-10 season starts in October.
When the history of the National Hockey League is written, people like Brendan Shanahan will be credited with turning the game around after the 2004-05 lockout.
But the game owes a debt of gratitude to Walkom.
One of the game's finest referees at the time of the lockout (he officiated more than 600 regular-season games and 84 playoff games, including two Stanley Cup finals, and participated in the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey), Walkom was asked by NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell to leave the ice and help the NHL once and for all crack down on obstruction and open up the game to its skilled players.
It was Walkom who worked with the league's 33 referees, 34 linesmen, teams and players to explain how the game was going to be called. And then, they made it work. It wasn't easy, but eventually the players learned to play within the new standards, and the game is as fast and entertaining as it's ever been.
"The game is in a great place right now," Walkom told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The officials' team is in a good place. We've really evolved as a team."
Walkom joked that he made himself obsolete as the officiating changes have trickled down to all levels of hockey, meaning new generations don't have to relearn the standards.
It was time, then, for Walkom to return to his true love -- refereeing.
"I've been thinking about it since Colin asked me to the leave the game, to come off the ice to help change the game," Walkom said. "I said, once this is done, I'd really like fair consideration to go back."
So, instead of evaluating the officials who will be gunning for places on the team at their annual training camp, Walkom will be working out with the men he has been evaluating and instructing for the past four years.
He said he might get a few nudges during the officials' regular hockey scrimmages.
"I'm sure there might be a couple of guys that'll give me the odd whack for something over the past four years," Walkom joked. "The guys have been great. They said, 'You're a rookie again and you're buying.'"
Walkom is a native of North Bay, Ontario, four hours north of Toronto. The first NHL game he attended was his first game as a standby official. "We couldn't afford it," he said.
After working minor pro games for a couple of years in the late 1980s, he joined the NHL crew in 1990. Before the lockout, he recalled that people would talk with great excitement about the playoffs, but often the regular-season games were lackluster.
"Now, you have that every night. You have amazing hockey all over the place," he said.
While he was instrumental in implementing the standards of officiating that were crucial to this new brand of hockey, he pined for the days when he was in the game, not above it and assessing how his referees and linesmen were doing.
"I envied what they did," Walkom said. "I'm not going to say it's going to be easy. It's going to be challenging."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.