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Some Seeds Take Longer to Grow

August 16, 2018, 12:38 PM ET [3 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulStewart22

Before we get into today's blog, I want to express a heartfelt thank you to everyone who reached out to me over the last week, following my selection to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. A thank you also goes out to Forbes and writer Matt Kalman for the profile that Matt wrote about me. It's all very humbling, and I am greatly appreciative.

Over the last week, I've thought a lot about just how easily I could have fallen by the wayside in hockey, first as a player and then as a referee. If I did not have people who believed in me and stuck by me when I messed up, you wouldn't be reading this right now.

In retelling the stories that follow, I am not proud of everything I did. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how much I needed to learn, and how appreciative I was -- and still am -- to my mentors that they had enough faith in my potential to let me turn these learning experiences into a means of self-improvement as an official. Some seeds take longer to grow, and I definitely took took to grow into being a referee.

OK, keeping that in mind, let's go back through some of my early travails....

When I made the transition from playing to officiating, I had to start back at the bottom -- after training camp in 1984, I received assignments to work games in the International Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League -- and then up to the American Hockey League before becoming a full-time NHL referee in 1987. The climb, to say the least, wasn't always smooth. Below is a short except from my upcoming book, "Ya Wanna Go?", about those earliest years in officiating.

The NHL's referee supervisors of the time often watched me ref these early contests.Matt Pavelich, Sam Sisco, Lou Maschio, Dutch van Deelan and Hall of Famers John Ashley and Frank Udvari all supervised my games.

Each one of these men spent entire days with me. They'd ride in the car with me, take me to lunch, tell me hockey stories, and teach me aspects about the game I never knew. All these men were extremely valuable in helping me make it to the NHL.

Ashley once told McCauley right in front of me he was unsure if he could make me a referee.

"He's pretty raw," Ashley told McCauley.

McCauley took his glasses off and pointed at Ashley.

"You're a Hall of Famer," McCauley told Ashley. "It's your job to teach him to be a ref."

Ashley and I ended up spending a great deal of time together and became close friends. I liked all my supervisors because I knew they all were interested in seeing me do well. McCauley occasionally visited to watch and so did Scotty Morrison. I constantly was monitored and coached. Every supervisor discussed positioning, thinking through the game, acceptability, and picking the right battle to fight because I did do some crazy stuff out there, like that one night in Salt Lake City, Utah:

Between periods at a Salt Lake Golden Eagles game, a 15-year-old male contestant received a chance to shoot a puck at a hole in a sheet of plywood that hanged from the net for a chance to win a one-year free lease on a car if successful.

The opening was barely large enough for the puck to fit through. The puck ended up stopping 99.6 percent past the goal line, not exactly, entirely through the hole.

"What should we do?" asked Golden Eagles PR executive Doug Palazzari, a former pro hockey player who had played 108 games for the St. Louis Blues.

"We need to get the period started," I replied. "I'll take care of it."

I skated by the net and nudged the board with my foot and emphatically pointed GOAL. The puck went in the net and the crowd roared. But the Golden Eagles general manager accosted me after the period, staring and screaming at me furiously.

"You don't have the right do that," he yelled. "Who do you think you are?"

"Maybe a referee soon out of work?" I answered, attempting levity. "Maybe I can get Doug's job?"

He wasn't amused.

My hotel phone rang the next day at 7 a.m. Utah time. It was 9 a.m. Toronto time. It was Scotty Morrison and he was furious.

I tried to explain myself but he shut me up immediately and told me just to listen. So I listened to him for about 10 minutes, although it seemed much longer. The phone was a good foot from my ear. I thought he was about to fire me.

He ordered me to go to the Salt Palace to see Golden Eagles owner Mr. Arthur "Art" Teece and apologize.

That morning, I sat in the Salt Palace office lobby waiting when Mr. Teece appeared, looking extremely joyful.

"Paul Stewart!" he said upon seeing me. "I want to shake your hand."

He came over to me like I had just saved his life.

"Well, I came over to apologize," I told him.

"Apologize? What you did was fantastic. You helped my team. Look at the front page of the paper today. Look at all the publicity we're getting. What a story! I'm mad at my team for not making the decision to do the same thing you did. That boy's dad is the vice president of our biggest season ticket and advertising client, Coca-Cola. What a great night. Thank you!"

"Well, Mr. Teece, I came over because Scotty, my boss, is pretty upset at me. Your GM called him and wants me fired."

"Well, that isn't going to happen," he said, reaching for the phone. "By the way, I'm originally from Springfield, I knew your grandfather. Quite a guy he was. The apple didn't fall far from the tree."

Mr. Teece called Morrison and insisted he not fire me. Scotty let it slide.

As I reflect back on the Salt Lake incident, I know what I did wasn't smart or professional. But it wasn't all bad, either, because hockey is show business. Mr. Teece — who also owned the Triple-A baseball Salt Lake Gulls from 1969-1983, was kind and Morrison was kinder. And the boy should not have been allowed to be a contestant, anyway. It was a lottery and he was only 15. He wasn't even old enough to drive the car.

I was green as grass in the ranks of officiating. I still had the mentality I did as a player: never leaving a challenge, whether verbal or physical, go unanswered. An official cannot be that way. We are there to keep the game fair, keep it safe and to "defuse the bomb" when necessary. The Rule Book is our shield, our hustle and positioning are the means to make the right call, and our confidence in our judgment is the source of courage. As a very young official, I made fairly rapid progress in most of these areas, but I was a little bit too long on self-assured courage and a bit short on understanding how to make cooler heads prevail.

The Western League Portland Winterhawks owner Brian Shaw — who had coached the WHA Edmonton Oilers for two seasons — confronted me one night after a game in Kamloops, BC. He marched into the officials' dressing room, and challenged me to fight. He brought three players -- Scott McMichael, John Kordic and, I think, Glen Wesley -- for backup.

I knew he was just posturing, but wasn't afraid of him even if he wasn't.

"You'll have to have 10 guys behind you," I sneered.

I dared him to make the first move and then told him to leave.

Shaw was quite feisty himself. During the 1971-72 season while coaching the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, Shaw was suspended two games and assessed a $150 fine for trying to get into the stands to go after a fan who hit him with a program after he had been ejected for arguing a penalty call.

In this case, though, he didn't actually want a fight. He was trying to intimidate, and he picked the wrong guy to try that with. But he left with this parting shot.

"You'll never referee in this league again!" He told me.

I returned to the hotel. Soon, Morrison called me.

"Did you threaten Shaw?" Morrison asked. "What happened?"

"No, he brought three players. They came into my dressing room and in front of the linesmen and challenged me to a fight."

"Did you hit him?" Morrison asked.

"No."

"OK, no problem," Morrison said, hanging up the phone.

I was lucky. Sometimes I acted like I was a cowboy from the Wild West. I had egged Shaw on to try to carry out his challenge. If he had, he'd have been fined by the league but I'd have been fired, and deservedly so. I wasn't a player anymore, trying to win a roster spot as a tough guy. I just didn't know any other way to act. I was still flying by the seat of my pants.

In a separate occasion I had at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, a puck struck me in the head and I fell to the ice along the sideboards. As a trainer and doctor helped me to my feet, a fan reached over the low glass and poked my shoulder.

"I hope you die," he told me.

"Go [bleep] yourself," I shouted out as any kid from Dorchester would reply.

That fan reported me to the league. He wrote a letter and the league made me call the man to apologize. Morrison used the situation as a lesson.

"As an official, you have to be above that," Morrison told me.

After the trainer and doctor helped me to my feet, I continued to referee that game in Salt Lake, although I was concussed. At the time, I didn't know that, but in hindsight, I immediately had all the symptoms. Back then, you just kept skating in a fog. I didn't remember much about the rest of the contest, only that the fan had poked me.

I don't think Morrison necessarily was mad at me that night. But he and McCauley were forced to deal with some situations they weren't accustomed to dealing with when I arrived on the scene. I received calls from Toronto frequently.

The most difficult part of transitioning from a player to ref was I sometimes wanted to act too much like a player. I'd skate by a player who did something wrong and I'd tell him the way I saw it. If I thought he pulled a cowardly stunt, I told him it was a BS move.

Then-Regina GM/Coach Bob Strumm, arguing for a penalty call, said something to me one night that I didn't like.

I fired back. "Bob, why don't you get your ass behind the bench and coach? Your team's power play sucks, anyway."

Strumm and I laugh about it now, but at the time, he exploded. I can't blame him. It was not the way a referee should have reacted or an appropriate reply. Nowadays, as an officiating supervisor, I would not put up with one of my officials saying something like that.

Despite my occasional antics, Morrison and McCauley saw the potential in me. The NHL signed me to a contract before the 1985-86 season. There were many, many lessons to come at the AHL and NHL levels. Thank goodness, I had bosses who believed in me, even when I gave them reasons to doubt.

*********

A Class of 2018 inductee to 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. Today, Stewart is the director of hockey officiating for the ECAC. Visit his official website at YaWannaGo.com.
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