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Over the years, I have been outspoken in my desire for the NHL to start recruiting and developing more officials from the United States and Europe. The league blew it a few years ago in its handling of Swedish referee Marcus Vinnerborg. Now the league has a chance to get it right with Russian referee Evgeny Romasko.

Personally, I could not care less where a fellow referee was born. I just know that the powers-that-be in the NHL officiating department have been way behind the rest of the sport in recognizing that one need not not be Canadian to do a good job.

My questions regarding officials are basically the same as for players: Is he skilled? Can he skate? Is he in shape? Does he have feel for the game? Does he work hard? Is he honest? Can he communicate? Does he have guts? Does he love being out there?

Currently working in the AHL, 33-year-old Romasko is a fine prospect for the NHL if he receives the proper teaching and support. I had a slight hand in his development in Russia, but it was others in Russia who provided most of his training and assignments. Former KHL president Alexander Medvedev helped him get valuable experience before he came over the NHL.

Evgeny needs to be led by the hand rather than simply tossed into the water and expected to swim — that was where the NHL messed up with Vinnerborg — but he has excellent potential. Bar none, I think he is the best conditioned official in the world right now. He’s a former VHL level defenseman for THK Tver and is both strong physically and an outstanding skater.

It’s going to take time and patience to develop him properly into a viable NHL official. I know him well enough to be certain that the raw materials and the work ethic are there. He’s willing to put in the time — and the miles of travel between games in the AHL — to make it happen.

Word is that the NHL may give Romasko one game this season. We’ll see what happens. I just hope that the League realizes how and where it went wrong with its previous European referee and does not repeat the same course while expecting a different outcome. I just want to see him put in position to succeed and then to rise or fall on his own merits.

I wish Evgeny, Mike Mullen, Matt Brady and Ryan Knapp — all guys getting their shot in the AHL this year whom I had the pleasure to coach — lots of luck. I wish them fast ice and clean goals, and a lot of enjoyment of life on and off the ice. I am out there with ’em in spirit.

************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a hockey column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.