The First European Referee in NHL

The First European Referee in NHL

In their eyes, the game is either black or white. It has to be — their call is to distinguish the legal play from the foul. Referees like Marcus Vinnerborg are truly devoted to their love of ice hockey. The Swede even managed to make a serious impression on the NHL.

8. 5. 2017 Škoda World

He never saw it as a goal and never thought of it that way. It was just never the right way to describe this combination of wishful thinking and what was real. For Marcus Vinnerborg, a goal was something that he deemed achievable. It was something about which he could one day say, “I accomplished that.” Being a referee in the world’s top ice hockey league, the NHL, was not a part of this. After all, no European had ever done it. Vinnerborg is Swedish, leaving him no chance… or so he thought. “It was a dream, but not a goal.” But then came the moment when a dream became a goal, and that goal became reality.

NHL Officials Headshots 2011-2012
Marcus Vinnerborg

Now all European referees can set this goal for themselves because it’s possible

It was a dream, but not a goal. But then came the moment when a dream became a goal, and that goal became reality

In 2010, after four World Championship tournaments and also having had the opportunity to display his impartiality at the Olympic Games, Vinnerborg received a call from Terry Gregson. Gregson had been a long-time referee himself but after retiring, he had worked his way up to the NHL board of directors. Vinnerborg was asked whether or not he would like to come to the United States for a season to test the waters, starting in lower leagues and working his way up to the NHL. Vinnerborg wanted to. After only ten games in the American Hockey League (AHL) he officiated his first game in the NHL. The dreams of so many came true for him as the Dallas Stars toppled the Anaheim Ducks 2:1 — a preliminary high point in a fast-track career — and now other Europeans could dream the same. Vinnerborg began in 1987, turned pro in 2006, and in 2010 he became the first European referee in the NHL. “Now all European referees can set this goal for themselves because it’s possible,” Vinnerborg said after seeing his dream come true. “I’m happy to have played a role in that.”

European referees are usually at a disadvantage to their North American counterparts, who often choose this path at around the age of 15. It’s hard to catch up. But Vinnerborg — a trained German and English teacher — was proficient, passionate, and had a good head for the game. He enjoyed every second on the ice. Two years, 190 official matches. But then he called it quits. His dream had come true, but life in the North American leagues was different from anything he had ever known before. Over a course of nine months, Vinnerborg had spent more than 150 nights in hotels and lost contact with his children. Ice hockey was his life, but his life could not consist of ice hockey alone. So now he’s “reffing” in Switzerland.

Hockey Encyclopedia


RULE 146
A tugging motion with both arms as if pulling from in front toward the stomach.

RULE 119 

Striking the clenched fist of one hand into the open palm of the opposite hand in front of the chest.

RULE 122
Rotating clenched fists around one another in front of the chest.

RULE 127
A forward and backward motion of the arms with both fists clenched, extending from the chest for a distance of about a half a meter.


An extension of the arm pointing at the goal to indicate the puck has entered the net.

RULE 114
Extending the non-whistle arm fully above the head. It is acceptable to point at the player first and then extend the arm above the head.

RULE 139
Tapping either elbow with the opposite hand.


RULE 143
Holding both fists clenched, one immediately above the other at the height of the forehead.


RULE 144
Grasping either wrist with the other hand in front of the chest.

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