We are living in dystopian times right now, where we're becoming accustomed to once-familiar forms of socializing becoming almost anti-social acts that put ourselves and others at risk. Last week, reader Jeff S. left me a message here at HockeyBuzz asking me, from a referee's standpoint, would it be a "reprieve" if the NHL returns to play with no spectators allowed in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The answer is no. The fans are a vital part of the atmosphere at a game. While there have always been a few numbskulls who take things too far, that does not apply to the vast majority. I enjoyed 95 percent of my interactions with fans, and being booed never bothered me. In terms of on-ice interactions, I also enjoyed most of the players, and some of the coaches.
If empty arenas are the only way hockey can be played in the somewhat near future, I guess it would have to suffice as a very short-term possibility. But I'd never want a sterile atmosphere. Trust me, both from my playing days and my officiating career, I worked in front of many packed houses and plenty of nearly empty ones, too, depending on the market, league level and time of year. The most fun ones to play or oifficate were inevitably the ones where things were hoppin' in the stands.
At any rate, thanks for the question, Jeff. I hope all HockeyBuzz readers who celebrate had a Happy Easter or an enjoyable Passover seder despite the tough and unusual circumstances that are keeping us connected digitally rather than face-to-face.
Apropos both to the Easter season and today's blog topic, I thought it might be a good time to share a story that stems from a game I refereed on Easter 1995. It was a nationally televised afternoon game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia between the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The two teams -- who were in different divisions at the time but still rivals, were separated by a point or two near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The atmosphere in the building was tremendous. It had all the feeling of a playoff game.
The Penguins led the game, 3-2, heading into the final minute of regulation. With 49 seconds left in the third period, Pittsburgh's Troy Murray violently boarded a Philadelphia player. It was a clear-cut major and a game misconduct. I made the appropriate call.
With 20 ticks left on the clock, the Flyers' Mikael Renberg scored to tie the game at 3-3.
Philadelphia remained on the power play. Just as regulation was about to expire, Pittsburgh's Ulf Samuelsson, who had already been guilty of one high-sticking infraction earlier in the third period, high-sticked Rod Brind'Amour; leaving him a bloody mess.
Again, the penalty was clear cut: all I could do was call another major penalty. As such the Flyers had a 5-on-3 power play for virtually the entire duration of overtime. At the 1:30 mark of overtime, a bandaged Brind'Amour scored on the power play to win the game for Philadelphia, 4-3.
As I left the ice, hockey reporter Al Morganti, who was working the game for ESPN, said, "There goes the most popular man in Pittsburgh on this Easter Sunday, referee Paul Stewart."
I probably should have kept walking, but I have an incurable impish streak in me. I stopped, turned to Al and said "Well, if I'm popular in Pittsburgh today, they are REALLY going to love me tomorrow night, because I'm working the game at the Igloo!"
The next night in Pittsburgh, I stepped out on the ice shortly before the players for both sides came out. I hear the expected chorus of boos and catcalls. I turned around to look at my linesmen -- my buddy Pat Dapuzzo and fellow veteran official Pierre Racicot -- and realized my teammates were playing a little joke on me.
They let me step out on the ice all by myself!
I circled around the rink, soaking up the "warm reception" from the Penguins partisans. As I passed the zamboni gate, there were still no fellow officials joining me. So I had to go around again for a second round of kudos from the folks near the glass. Finally, the linesmen decided to grace me with their presence.
At any rate, I didn't mind taking heat from the fans in Pittsburgh that night. The two calls I'd made late in the previous game were absolutely the right ones and it was my responsibility to make them. No more and no less.
I've said it before and will say it again: One of the things I loved about being a referee was that I had no personal interest in which team won or lost. Along with my officiating partners, it was my job to keep things fair, hustle and make the right calls to the best of my ability.
Thereafter, we got to leave the building, unwind and enjoy the rest of our night. I miss those times, especially nowadays.
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.