International education

BRIAN SWANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

There are many accounts of celebrated hockey players who got their start in the most unlikely locations.

It's the same with coaches. Edmonton's own Billy Moores, for example, spent multiple seasons coaching in Japan before being hired as an assistant by the Oilers.

When it comes to referees, it's hard to top the tale of Derek Zalaski. In 2005, the Edmonton referee made his international debut officiating the World Junior Division III championships in that veritable hotbed of hockey: Mexico.

"I couldn't believe they actually had a hockey rink in Mexico City, but they did," he recalls.

"There were teams from Brazil and Turkey, and your non-traditional hockey markets that played in the championships there."

"That was my first sniff at international hockey in its finest form."

Zalaski's enjoying much finer things now. Starting Friday, he'll be calling games at the 2009 World Championships in Switzerland, which runs through May 10.

It's his first time being assigned to the annual event, which features many NHL stars, and is the highest-calibre of international hockey competition outside of the Olympics and World Cup.

"The world championships is something that I could never have fathomed," says Zalaski. "Basically, I'm one referee in Canada out of 33,000 that gets to represent their country at a level like this, so it's a great honour."

While his citizenship essentially precludes him from working Team Canada contests (to avoid conflicts of interest - real or perceived - referees aren't assigned to games involving their home nation), there's a very good chance Zalaski will be on the ice when the host Swiss are playing.

"You're thrown into that situation, you're probably going to have a sold-out stadium and very passionate fans about their local team," he says. "I'm there to do an impartial job, but there's a lot of people there that are staring down your back and breathing on your throat every single call that you make ... so it should be a real pressure-cooker, for sure."

Zalaski has been building his resume since he first donned the zebra stripes nearly 20 years ago, a nervous 13-year-old "knocking his knees" before dropping the puck on a novice game at the Bill Hunter Arena in west Edmonton.

In 2003, he received Level VI officiating status with Hockey Canada, becoming eligible to referee IIHF events. After Mexico City, he worked two World Under-18 Championships - 2006 in Sweden and last year in Russia - then called the Spengler Cup in Switzerland last December.

A 12-year veteran of the WHL, Zalaski also works games for the AJHL and CIS, mostly on weekends to avoid conflicting with his full-time position as a market analyst with Ford.

It's the latter of those jobs that pays the bills, and while being a referee effectively makes him the least popular person on the ice, Zalaski loves doing it.

"Part of it is just being in control, being in the game and I've got the best seat in the house. I'm able to see up and down the ice and I'm front and centre in the action," he says.

"It's something that kind of sticks in your blood and it allows you to really enjoy yourself out there. I caught the bug early and just took off running with it."

The NHL remains a dream for Zalaski, and he'd love to work at the Olympics, but otherwise, this latest gig is as good as it gets.

His performance in the round-robin games at World's, he says, will determine how many medal-round games he is assigned, he says. But no matter how well he does, he won't suit up for the gold medal match unless his home country is eliminated beforehand.

"Unfortunately, you get tied in two mixed directions.Because Canada is going for gold, then that probably means you're not going to get a chance for the gold medal game.

"But in the end I just want to see good hockey and being there we have to be impartial. So that way I'm kind of stretched in two directions," he says, nixing any notions that his patriotism overrides his professionalism.

"I can't be a fan of any team when I go. (I'm) a fan of the officials when I'm there."


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