On Monday in Toronto, the Hockey Hall of Fame will induct the late, great Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero in its Builders category of honorees. This honor is way past overdue, but I am glad that it has finally happened. I'm thrilled also that Ray Shero will have the opportunity to accept on behalf of his father.
I want to share with you my own personal debt of gratitude to Fred Shero. I learned things from him that inspired me to believe I really could have a professional playing career in hockey. There are things I learned from him that I apply to this very day in working with referees in both a supervisory and instructional capacity.
Here's some background first to give you a sense of where I came from and how far Fred Shero helped me to come from that point.
As some of you may know, I am a graduate of the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania. I attended the university and played on Penn's ice hockey team from the fall of 1972 until my graduation. Back in that era, the Flyers practice rink was at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink on Penn's Campus. I used to work at the rink when I wasn't in class or practicing with my team.
I never fit in with most of my teammates at Penn. The rest of them all lived in one house, and very few of them were really all that serious about their hockey or attending classes. They pretty much exclusively wanted to party and chase girls. Whether our team won or lost, getting better as players and taking advantage of the opportunity for an Ivy League education were not really very high on their priority list.
I was not a world-class scholar or a highly skilled hockey player by any means, but one thing anyone had to admit about me was that I cared and I was willing to do whatever it took to better myself. I worked very hard on the ice to improve my game and was a gung-ho, never-say-die player in the locker room and on the ice. I worked out hard in the weight room in era where many players dismissed it as just a big bore. I studied karate, too.
All of these things were enjoyable to me, but they drove a bigger wedge between myself and my Penn teammates. I would come to the locker room, and no one would talk to me. I was always ostracized as the weird guy. By my senior year, I was an emotional wreck when it came to dealing with those guys.
There was one day in practice, I was standing in front of the net and a guy cross-checked me in the back of the neck, cracking my third cervical vertebra. After three weeks, against the doctor's advice, I was ready to play again.
In the dressing room before my next practice, I went up to the guy who injured me. I deliberately tried to keep calm and speak to him in a civil tone, even though I wanted to punch the guy in the face. I tried to be conciliatory.
I said to him, "Listen, I just need to ask you something. I need to ask you why you did that to me. I mean, what did I ever do to you? We're teammates."
He said, "[Bleep] you, I'm not here to be friends with you."
That was the final straw for me with this guy. During an intrasquad scrimmage, I lined him up for check and blasted the guy so hard with my shoulder to his chest that both of his elbows him the boards and he ended up dislocating his clavicle and separating his shoulder.
Two of the guy's best buddies went after me and I fought each of them and won. Then I yelled out a challenge to rest of the team for anyone else who wanted to tangle with me to bring it on right then and there.
Later, when I was by myself, I cried. This was not what I wanted from hockey. This was not what a team should do. I was despondent.
Without Fred Shero -- and many of the players on the Broad Street Bullies era Flyers who practiced at the Class of 1923 rink -- I would not have had a career in this sport. The way that Shero and players on the team treated me at that rink was the exact opposite from the way I got treated by members of my own team.
These guys were pros. These guys were in the NHL. These guys were Stanley Cup champions twice, and guys like Shero and Barry Ashbee and Dave Schultz could not possibly have been nicer or more helpful to me.
Like a sponge, I absorbed all I could learn from watching Shero. I noticed the way he made every member of his team feel valued, and got them to take pride in their role on the team; whatever that role may have been. He got his "non-skill" tough guys and checking liners to take pride in what they did and also to challenge themselves to want to continue to work on their skating and their puckhandling and their decision-making.
Everything, and I mean everything, was team-first with Shero. He put his players in position to succeed rather than setting them up to fail. He knew how to get players to recognize and maximize their areas of strength and to treat the not-so-strong areas of their game as opportunities for improvement rather than as weaknesses.
Shero knew hockey strategy and team coaching better than anyone I had ever seen. I was extremely fortunate to be able to watch him at work, and he generously shared of his knowledge with me. I was sort of a gofer for him, going up Walnut Street to get him a few long-neck Schmidt's beers and maybe a sandwich.
He'd invite me to sit down, as he chain-smoked his cigarettes and popped open a beer or two while he did preparations. Sometimes he'd sit in silence for a long period of time and then suddenly blurt out something like, "So, do you think we should try out Schultz on the power play next game?"
At first, I didn't know if I was supposed to be like a potted plant in the room or if I was supposed to answer. But I soon realized that Shero was a perpetual collector of ideas, which he would then synthesize through his own unique prism.
Additionally, he was someone who was extremely generous with his time if you asked him hockey questions. Asking questions is something many young hockey players -- and referees and linesmen -- are afraid to do, but they are only cheating themselves by not tapping into the knowledge and experience that is available to help guide them.
I have never been afraid to ask questions. I wasn't afraid then and I'm still not afraid now. As a result, I always feel like I'm learning new things. Back in those days, I hung on every word that Fred Shero told me about the art and science of what he did.
To this very day, by the way, I employ specific things that Fred Shero taught me. For instance, my method of teaching skating to young officials -- how to keep their heads up properly, which lanes to skate in and avoid -- was directly adapted from things I saw Shero doing while instructing his Stanley Cup winning team.
Shero always stressed to me the importance of self-critique as a player (which I also later applied to officiating). Understand why you get the ice time you get. Understand why you are used in the situations you are used, and work to be the best player you can possibly be in that role. In the meantime, never quit on working at other parts of your game, too, because a time may come when you may be able to step into a bigger role.
Look at what Shero did for role players like Bob Kelly and Don Saleski. The Hound never played a single game in the minor leagues, and it wasn't because he was the most talented player on the ice. He just understood his role and performed it with big-time gusto. Look at Saleski, who started out as "just another agitator and fighter". Over the years, he worked his way up to be a penalty killer who also scored 20-plus goals in three straight years. Those guys would be quick to tell you that none of that would have been possible for their careers if they had a lesser coach than the Fog to guide them and lesser team leaders to show they had confidence in their abilities.
Although I never played in the Flyers system, I did learn and benefit from Shero's teachings because I was around the rink and his team. I learned from guys like Schultz treating me kindly and making me want to work even harder for a chance to someday pull on an NHL sweater and find my own little niche to contribute.
When Freddie the Fog is inducted to the Hall, there will be a long-ago rink rat from the Class of 1923 skating rink who will have him in his thoughts.
Thank you, Fred Shero, from the bottom of my heart.
Recent Blogs by Paul Stewart
Officiating Teams and Two-Man Ref System
Unsafe at Any Speed: Hockey Equipment and Concussions
Defending Teammates, the Code and the Human Rulebook
Emery and the Aggressor Rule (Rule 46.2)
Hockey Fights Cancer: My Story
Delay of Game: Good Intentions, Bad Rules
Too Many Mississippis: The Hanzal Suspension
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 only American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is a judicial and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials, while also maintaining a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.