Walkom welcomed back to the north
by Randy Pascal
It's not often that game officials are welcomed with enthusiasm.
The NOHA Hockey Summit over the August long weekend brought together countless people involved with the
game, from all corners of northern Ontario, who experience the thrills and challenges of hockey from Sault Ste Marie to
Timmins, through to Sudbury and North Bay, and everywhere in between.
But it also provided a voice to those who leave the familiar surroundings of the north to ply their trade within the
higher levels of the sport.
Current NHL official and one-time refereee in chief Stephen Walkom did not hesitate when asked to offer
his input to the crowd that assembled in Sudbury for three days of discussion and debate.
A university student at Laurentian in the early 1980's, the future pro official was a pretty common face at a variety of
arenas in the Nickel City, having progressed to the midget and junior ranks by that point in his career.
With just fourteen gentlemen manning the NHL referees' list on a full-time basis in those days, Walkom did not initially
approach the profession as his career of choice.
"As much as I might have wanted to, I recognized that I had to get a degree, had to hit the real world," he said during
a break in the sessions that were held at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Sudbury.
"But in my own mind, I really believed that I could make it." Apparently, he wasn't alone. Working his way up through the
junior hockey ranks in Ontario, Walkom's potential was identified and it wasn't long before he embarked on what is now a
two decade old sojourn with the greatest hockey league on the planet.
The skill level that Walkom experiences on a game to game basis does not go unappreciated with the man who has joined a
very impressive list of northern Ontario residents who were able to work their way through to the team of NHL officials.
"The officials recognize how good these guys are, just how gifted they are," Walkom said. "Most officials are really
wannabe hockey players and we marvel at how good they are. Maybe that’s one of the biggest challenges in the game, is doing
your job while they’re putting on a show."
There is definitely a self-depracating air to Stephen Walkom, who does not hesitate at poking a little fun at himself,
even in explaining his rise to the role of NHL Referee in Chief, a posting he held for some five years.
"I think they (NHL management) saw a hillbilly from North Bay and said “let’s try this guy”, Walkom suggested with a
laugh. Truth be told, Walkom is blessed with great communications skills and a quick wit, both of which have come in
handy over the years, whether addressing players on the ice or officiating brethren in training sessions.
Through it all, he has tried to maintain perspective, understanding the slot in which he fits in the grand scheme of
things. "You really have to recognize that you serve the game first," Walkom said.
"You don’t want to get too caught up in anything other than the game that you’re in. Focus on your role in the sport and
that is to uphold the integrity of the game."
Like most of those involved at the NHL level, Walkom was thrilled with the advent of the rule changes of a few years back,
or rather simply the standardization and application of what has always existed in the rule book.
"You have players now coming into the game that have an immediate impact because they are not getting hooked, held and
grabbed with defensive tactics," Walkom said.
"The game is exciting to watch and a real privilege to be in it – it’s like a fast video game." Keeping everything in
context is something Walkom holds near and dear to his heart.
It's very much reflected when asked about his favourite memory in a career of officiating that spans easily more than
three decades, as he recalls the day before the 2011 Winter Classic in Boston.
"The officials had the ice and we went out, with my wife and my kids," he said. "That was really exciting – it was
outdoors, it was sunny - it reminded me of North Bay."
And it just doesn't get any better than that.