It sounds like the NHL and the Players Association are finally on the brink of an agreement to return to finish the 2019-20 season. I know that won't be popular with everyone if and when it comes down, but I am not one to call for the cancellation of a season. If the season can be completed in relative safely in two hub cities (likely both in Canada) in empty arenas and with participants quarantined away from the rink, do it.
Legend has it that Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale's final words were, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." In my case, and those of many other players and officials from my era, I only regret that I have but one body to give to my sport. The politics of the sport are wearying, the physical toll is very heavy and permanent but most of us would gladly do it all over again. There are only so many kicks at the can, so many chances to play in or officiate the biggest games of the season.
Irrespective of the debate over return-to-play versus canceling now due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I think that athletes are wired to be men and women of action.
Generally speaking, I am unashamedly someone who holds doers in higher esteem than critics. There's a place for doers of deeds and philosophers, of course. Personally, have always been most drawn to people who pursue and fight for their dreams. Raising relevant concerns and pauses for thought is one thing. It's quite another to simply gainsay a plan before you even hear all the details. I don't hold much respect for those who seem to delight in putting a damper on others' dreams.
In one of his famous pregame written messages, Hockey Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero wrote, "To avoid criticism is easy. Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." That has always resonated with me. There are a lot of coat-holders in this world; spectators in the arena of life.
While I have a lot of appreciation for the paying customers and devoted hockey fans in general who have enabled me to make my living in this game for more than 40 years, I admit that I sometimes wonder if those who've only experienced the game from the sidelines or been involved only casually are truly in touch with the heart and soul of the sport.
Herein lies hockey's heart and soul: Laying your body on the line, night after night and year after year. Playing through pain that exits your mind as soon as you step on the ice but hits you like a bag of bricks afterwards. Riding freezing-cold and foul-smelling minor league buses or driving hundreds of miles to officiate a game. Channeling the mindset of being ready, willing and able to fight even when your knuckles are busted up, your body aches and you don't even have a personal quarrel with the guy you're fighting except that he plays on the other side. Getting hastily sewn-in stitches and hurrying back to the bench. Participating in the banter of the locker room. The sting of being benched or the sinking feeling of realizing a game is slipping away. Experiencing the brother-to-brother camaraderie of being a rank-and-file official. The quiet satisfaction of knowing of leaving the rink knowing you did your job as an official or a player.
Throughout my life, I've drawn tremendous inspiration from the words of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in his famous "Citizenship in a Republic" speech written and delivered in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I hope for all those wannabees out there who trample on everyone's dreams, digest this heartily: It's all about never quitting, hanging in there and going until the bell rings, crossing the finish line and scoring that goal.
Why does grit matter in hockey? I've seen countless skill players who look good in practice and maybe even stand out in the preseason or in loosely defended games. When the mucking starts, they fade faster than a sun tan in February.
For all you wannabe coaches that think you are the next coming of Herb Brooks, stop trampling on kids 'dreams, projecting your negativity, not helping your player develop, and simply telling them "you aren't good enough." That goes, too, for the armchair scouts and GMs out there as well as the real-life ones who don't understand that some seeds take longer than others to grow.
Michael Jordan -- arguably the greatest basketball player ever to lace up a pair of hightops -- was cut from his high school basketball varsity team as a sophomore, and was placed instead on the junior varsity team. It took Pete Rose a year in a post high-school amateur league in Cincinnati to get a professional baseball contract. Larry Bowa tried out for his high school baseball team four times and got cut all four years, but went to have a 45-year-old playing and coaching career in Major League Baseball including five All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves and, later, a Manager of the Year Award.
In hockey, there are many, many such stories. Terry O'Reilly was told he wasn't good enough to play professionally. Bobby Clarke was bypassed by every team in the NHL in the first round of the 1969 Draft -- skipped twice by some teams -- solely because he had diabetes and teams thought there's no way someone with the disease could play NHL hockey. Theoren Fleury had a rough childhood, was severely undersized and ignored in the NHL Draft until the eighth round in 1987. Meanwhile, many undrafted players, like Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli, future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis and prolific-scoring 1980s power forward Tim Kerr was written off by many in their early years.
Of course, that is my own life story as well.
I was told I wasn't college or pro hockey material as a player. When I played at Penn and the lower-minor league level, I was told I had no shot at the WHA or especially the NHL. I was told I was a hopeless case when trying to make the transition from player to referee. I was told by some I couldn't make it to the NHL as a referee and then, post 1989, my bosses tried to bully me into quitting and told me I was the worst official in the league. I was told my chances of survival from stage three colon cancer were less than 50-50. I was told it was probably going to be too difficult to return to officiating in the NHL.
After my active officiating days were over, I was told that I had no future in training and managing officials. I was told I'd be the latest quick casualty in what had been a revolving door of ECAC officiating directors. I was told there was no way people in the KHL would accept a non-Russian to work with their officials.
Well, here I am. I've been a hockey professional in various capacities since the mid-1970s. I will share my "secret" with you: There is no substitute for hard work and persistence.
The naysayers will retort, "Well, everyone works hard."
They are wrong. It's not JUST hard work, it's hard work coupled with HONEST thinking about what you need to work on and then the willingness to keep at it even if the results take time.You need character and integrity. Work ethic and character matter more than raw talent for the game.
For all you kids trying out for a hockey team, please remember this: If you get cut or projected to not be a "star" player -- take it from me -- the graveyards are full of guys with star potential that couldn't handle the traffic in the corners, the competition when it was for real or the pressure day after day.
At its root, hockey is about four things: skating, passing, shooting and checking.
Break down each part and work on a skill in each part of the game that you can't do well until it's a part of the game that you do very well. At that point, you will have the last and best thing you need to make it: SELF CONFIDENCE.
Trust me, that is something I never lacked. If I achieved my goals, so can you. Let the work begin to take you to your dream. Be a doer of deeds.
As for the NHL's return-to-play plan, if both the league and the NHLPA are agreed to it, go for it. The players will do their part, and so will the officials.
A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.