Swede to become NHL's first European official

A professional hockey official like Marcus Vinnerborg knows his best games occur when he effectively goes unnoticed on the ice.

There is one exception, especially if you are Vinnerborg, who has worked in Sweden's Elitserien, the country's top professional league, since 2000. That's if Terry Gregson, NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Officials, and his staff are watching you work.

On Thursday, Vinnerborg, 37, was announced as the first European-trained official to join the National Hockey League officiating staff next season. Vinnerborg will be assigned to the American Hockey League but over the course of the season it is expected that he will be assigned to work NHL regular-season games.

Vinnerborg has worked in Sweden's Elitserien since 2000.

Vinnerborg has worked many high-profile international games in recent years, such as Russia-Canada at this year's Olympic quarterfinals, the U.S.-Finland 2010 Olympic semifinal, and the 2008 World Championships gold-medal game between Russia and Canada played at Quebec City.

"Marcus had a big call in overtime of that 2008 gold-medal game that had to be called," said Gregson, recalling a game that Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk subsequently won on a power-play goal in overtime. "He has the mindset to do the right thing in a game."

Vinnerborg said the NHL's decision to institute the four-man officiating crew has paved the way for his groundbreaking role next season. The NHL started using four-man crews during the 1998-99 season and the rest of the hockey world has since followed suit.

"There are so many ways to take advantage of the four-man system," said Vinnerborg, explaining the Swedish Elitserien only recently installed four-man crews. "It improves where you look, how to stand, the best possible ways to call a game. You see more of what's going on."

Gregson credited his officiating supervisor counterpart at the IIHF, officiating manager Konstantin Komissarov, as "supportive of bringing people along" so European-trained officials like Vinnerborg can join the NHL ranks.

"We have developed a good relationship," said Gregson about Komissarov and the IIHF overall. "It is part of the NHL plan to look to add European officials."

For his part, Vinnerborg said the "proof of the four-man system" is that no major calls were debated or lambasted during the 2010 Olympics, which ended in a thrilling overtime victory for Canada.

"No one noticed if it was an IIHF or NHL official who called a penalty," said Vinnerborg. "That proves the system is working."

Vinnerborg began his officiating career in 1987. He played juniors-level hockey but was even more skilled as a soccer player, concentrating his effort on that sport but helping to officiates children's hockey games in his hometown of Ljungby on weekends. Since then, he has built quite the hockey resume: The 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 World Championships, the 2006 World Junior Championships, as well as the Continental Cup, Rossno Cup, Karjala Cup, Sweden Hockey Games, Deutschland Cup and Spengler Cup. Vinnerborg has been one of the top referees the Elitserien since 2000 and has extensive experience (more than 125 games) working in the two-man referee system in international tournaments.

"I am very honored to be the first European to have this dream-come-true opportunity of working in the NHL," said Vinnerborg. "I hope that this will help to lead the way for other European officials in the future as well. Personally, I look forward to having the chance to work with, and learn from, the best officials in the best League in the world."

He will arrive in North America in time for the NHL's pre-season Officiating Camp in September in the Toronto-area. Vinnerborg's wife and twin 12-year-old daughters will be joining him on what he called "this very happy adventure."