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The Player's Mindset vs. the Official's Mindset

December 20, 2017, 12:01 PM ET [3 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

Back in the Jurassic Period when I was a pro player, I used to be like a caged lion before a game. I didn't know how many shifts I'd get that night -- there were more than a few nights in the NHL, WHA and even AHL when I dressed for a game but sat on the bench all night without a single shift -- but I couldn't wait to find out.

As a ref, I was the same way. Even more so, in fact, because I knew I'd be skating all night. My life credo is " just keep me skating."

As a young referee, I reffed Game 2 of the 1987 Canada Cup Final between Russia and Canada. You should have seen me before that game. I paced back and forth in the dressing room; not from nerves, but pure adrenaline, Finally, I looked at the two linesmen.

"Let's go," I said. "I can't sit in here anymore."

"Stew, not yet," said linesman John D'Amico. "There's still seven minutes to go in warmups."

"I don't care," I said. "Let's go take a skate."

I could not just sit still in the dressing room. I needed to get out there, get the feel of the ice and get comfortable. The feeling of being cooped up was unbearable.

As long as I have access to a rink, things are OK in my world. It's not about attention or money, but I have eaten well because of the fine folks who pay to see the games.

My father understood.

My dad, Bill Stewart Jr., was a kind and compassionate man but he also knew how to take the starch out of disrespectful people. I will never forget how, one time one time after he refereed a game, he had the perfect retort to a leather-lunged heckler who screamed at him as he exited the rink.

"Thank you," my father said to the guy.

"Why are YOU thanking me?"

"Now that the game is over, I'm going to go out and enjoy a steak and a beer. You paid for it, so thank you," he said. "Oh, and I'll be back here next Friday night."

The loudmouth had been put in his place. Several people standing around the loudmouth laughed -- so that's something else that came at that guy's expense. The guy had been so obnoxious that he turned off every one around him, too.

At any rate, one of the most commonly asked questions I get when I'm interviewed is about navigating the mental transition from playing to officiating. I won't lie: that took some time.

There is a lot to learn about the art of officiating. It is as much art as science. The mental and psychological aspects of the job have to be learned along with critical aspects such as positioning and rulebook knowledge.

When I was a young official only a few years removed from my playing days, I sometimes had trouble making the mental leap on the ice. Sometimes I'd skate by a player who messed up on a play, I'd tell him the way I saw it. If I thought he was playing soft or gutless hockey, I'd say so.

I would also sometimes engage in trash-talking conversations that were out of line with how an official should act when someone takes an adversarial tone. For instance, one time I worked a game in Regina where coach Bob Strumm got in my face about a couple of plays where his team didn't get a power play.

"Get back behind the bench and coach," I said. "Your power play sucks, anyway."

We laugh about that now. At the time, it really set Bob off. In retrospect, I can't blame him. A referee should not taunt or goad someone in the way that an opposing player might.

At other times, I struggled with the Rule Book -- but not in the way that you might think. John McCauley got me to learn the book thoroughly by having ME write up a rules test that passed muster with him. Knowledge of the rules and their permutations was not the issue. Rather, my struggle was with rules that I thought were ill-conceived ones (such as the automatic delay of game penalty for even a clearly accidental flip of the puck over the glass by a goaltender) or were vague and poorly written.

There were times when I was a young official when I flat out refused to enforce something I thought was an ill-conceived rule. I had no right to do that. As I matured, I stopped doing it. Like it or hate it, automatic penalties have to be called. A ref is paid to judge based upon the Rule Book.

At other times, I realized that I needed work on striking the right balance between maintaining game flow and enforcing the Rule Book. Over time, I think striking that balance became one of my biggest strengths as a referee.

The best advice I ever got about officiating methodology and striking the balance between a player's mentality and a referee's mentality was given to me by Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Frank Udvari.

Frank pulled me aside one night and told me, "Don't just read the Rule Book and then referee by every literal word of the book. Put your skates on and referee by the feel. If a player did it to you and you'd be angry, that's a penalty. If he did it to your teammate and you want to go fight the guy, that's a penalty. If you were sitting on the bench and your teammate was doing it to an opponent and you would ask yourself, 'What the hell was that?', then that's a penalty."

For the rest of my career, I focused on refereeing by feel and by the temperature of the game. Hockey sense became an area where I felt my playing background, which included time in the NHL and WHA, gave me an advantage over some other guys.

I've had many guys I reffed in the NHL tell me that one of the things they liked the most about games of theirs I officiated -- even if they disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with particular calls -- was that I understood players' psyche. I could tell the tough guys from the bluff guys. I could root out embellishment. I also understood the give-and-take of the game. That is why I gained more acceptability among players than within the league office. Multiple times, I finished second to Kerry Fraser in the Players' Poll of the top ref in the NHL. However, come spring time, I'd always be home or a standby by round two of the playoffs.

Even to this day, I can still think like a player although I officiated far longer than I played. I've periodically been asked to come talk privately to players, especially youngsters those who are in danger of getting a reputation that could be tough to live down. It's not all about skill over will. Character counts. Not everything is quantifiable in so-called "advanced" stats.

That said, one of the very first lessons I learned as an official is that some of the instincts and training you receive as a player on a team has to refocused to being someone who defuses volatile situations rather than escalating them. As a player, my instincts were to fight every fight and never back down.

Actually, on the final night of my first NHL training camp, I came damn close to getting into a bar fight in a situation that did not initially involve myself.

All of the officials at the camp went out after the final day of camp. I sat at the bar, deep in conversation with a guy named William "Dutch" Van Deelan; a referee supervisor who lived in Western Canada. He was an older gentleman who had reffed in the Western Pro Hockey league.

Dutch had played some pro hockey himself in the Western Canada Hockey League for the Regina Kings during the 1940s. He was a little guy (maybe 5-foot-7) but tough as nails on the ice. Off the ice, he was a caring man. We became good friends, and he treated me like a surrogate son.

Suddenly, there was a ruckus nearby. A drunken idiot at the bar was trying to provoke a fight with Don Koharski. He deliberately bumped Koho and then pushed him.

I didn't doubt Koharski could handle himself against this guy -- and Don was just about ready to fight him. But there was no reason why Don should have to do.

I excused myself from Dutch, stepped in and grabbed the guy by the collar.

"You want to fight? Fight me," I said.

"Who the [bleep] are you?" the guy sneered.

Making direct eye contact, I said, "I'm the guy who will kick your ass. One move and I will shove this beer bottle down your throat."

The guy hesitated for just a moment, seeing that I wasn't bluffing or backing down. He also felt the glare of everyone's eyes on him. That gave the bouncers enough time to grab the guy and escort him out of the bar.

"That was pretty good," Dutch told me when I returned.

"Koharski doesn't need any crap from a guy like that," I said. "I do this for a living."

"Well, you can't do that anymore," Dutch said. "You're a referee now. You fit here like a glove. You're going to be all right."

That incident was probably the first time I realized I'd TRULY crossed over to the other side. I was now one of officials and no longer a player. At my core, however, I simply needed (and will to the day I die) to be involved in the game in some capacity. Have skates, will travel.

For the most part, I truly enjoyed the fans when I played and officiated. But that was something for after the game. During the game -- and I hate to break this to folks who thought I was paying attention to them in the stands -- I was so intensely focused on my job that the Rockettes could have done a kick line around the building and I wouldn't have known. Christie Brinkley could have been sitting in the stands holding up a sign that said "Stewy, please call me" and I'd have been unaware.

After games was a different story. I am someone who has always enjoyed socializing and bantering with people. Even during the occasional stoppage of play, there was sometimes an opportunity to take a deep breath, relax my mind for a minute by kibbitzing with someone and then get back into "game mode."


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.
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