The bad news received two years ago withered Mark Lemelin’s once-unbreakable will.
Stephen Walkom, the NHL director of officiating, told Lemelin he would not be rehired as a referee after four years in the league’s system. Lemelin, who grew up in Albuquerque, had been expecting what he thought would be a well-deserved promotion to become a full-time NHL referee.
The release crushed him.
Even after all the work he had put in, Lemelin wanted to quit his career as an ice hockey referee. All that adversity and challenges he faced for being the only referee from Albuquerque, of all places, finally had gotten to him.
But two days later, he received another phone call, an offer to work in the Erste Bank Hockey League, the top league in Austria. It was an opportunity that reinvigorated him and eventually led to some even greater news.
In early December, Lemelin was told he was selected to be one of 14 referees for men’s ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Lemelin, his life changed by various pivotal phone calls, is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Games. Men’s ice hockey begins today, and Lemelin’s first game (no word yet on which) will be Thursday.
“I was actually pretty surprised, at first, that I was going,” Lemelin told the Journal last week by phone from Austria, where he lives with wife Nicole. He left for South Korea on Saturday. “I was a little shocked, and it turned into excitement.”
Lemelin said he was let go by the NHL along with three others, Dave Lewis, John Grandt and Darcy Burchell. It was of little coincidence, Lemelin believes, the quartet had been hired by Terry Gregson, Walkom’s predecessor who retired four years ago.
The NHL said Walkom was not available for an interview for this story. Julie Young, the NHL director of communications, said the league does not discuss employment issues with regard to referees.
“We certainly wish Mark all the best with his Olympic experience,” Young wrote in an email.
Lemelin, 37, is very happy where he is.
He knew breaking into the NHL — he worked 59 NHL games —would be a daunting task. But he believed after officiating three American Hockey League finals matches, he had a great chance to move up to a full-time position.
There are only six U.S.-born referees in the NHL. The other 28 are Canadian born, according to NHL.officials.com. There also just six U.S.-born linesmen in the NHL and 29 who were born in Canada. Walkom, a former NHL ref, was also born in Canada. Both Lemelin and his father, Jacques, who is from Sherbrooke, Quebec, and lives in Albuquerque, believe the NHL prefers Canadian-born referees.
That said, there are no NHL officials in the Winter Games this year, just as there are no NHL players in the Games.
“Mark is better off where he is now,” Jacques Lemelin said. “If he got into the NHL, he wouldn’t be at the Olympics today. I’d rather see him in the Olympics.”
The decision to accept the offer to work in Austria proved to be a shrewd move.
“I never thought of coming to Europe,” Mark Lemelin said. “But I thought, basically, why not. At least for one season. We might as well take the experience and see what we think. I signed a one-year contract. Since then we turned it into a multiyear contract. It’s not exactly how I planned it, but it has turned out great.”
Lemelin was introduced to hockey at a young age by his father. Jacques was in the Air Force, stationed at Kirtland Air Force Bace, where Mark was born.
The family includes children Joanne, Ronald, Matthew and Marie, and mother, Veronica. Mark started playing hockey at Albuquerque’s Outpost Ice Arena.
When he was 10, the family moved to Saudi Arabia. It was highly unusual to play hockey in Saudi Arabia, but Mark and his father did, in Riyadh, the capital.
Jacques said he formed a junior team, and its uniqueness caught attention. The squad was invited to play in a world tournament in Berlin.
Jacques’ team didn’t play all too well, but came back with a trophy for sportsmanship and the fewest penalties.
“We were over there (in Saudi Arabia) for six years,” Mark Lemelin said. “I remember a lot of that. We only had one rink, a third of the size of a normal rink. Just really, really small. My mom couldn’t even come to the rink. Women weren’t allowed in the ice rink.”
After Saudi Arabia, the family moved back to Albuquerque, where Mark maintained his love for hockey. He became a referee, even at age 14, because a lot of the times there weren’t any around for junior games.
“It was good to get extra ice time and make a little bit of money,” he said.
It wasn’t until he was 18 when he became serious about being a referee. The New Mexico Scorpions played nearby. He had heard that a linesman suffered an injury. Soon after that, he received a call to fill in as a linesman.
From there he was offered a part-time job as a linesman in the Western Hockey League, which employed him for three years.
When he was 21, he moved to Minnesota and signed to officiate in the U.S. Hockey League, a junior division.
Lemelin later worked in the Central Hockey League, when the Scorpions moved from Tingley Coliseum to the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho. The league gave him an apartment in Albuquerque, where he was roommates with two linesmen.
“The league was very entertaining,” Lemelin said. “There was lots of physical play and lots of fights. I learned more about officiating there than any other time.”
At the Olympics, he is taking his career to another level. He had attended a camp during the summer in Switzerland to vie for a spot at the Games.
“I’m on top of the world,” Jacques said about his son’s rare and exceptional feat. “I never expected for Mark to go to something like the Olympics. I was shocked when he was hired by the NHL. Now that he got selected by the Olympics, it is overwhelming.”