Concussions are an insidious monster that threaten our heavy-contact sport. Let me rephrase that: Continuing to sticking our heads in the sand in this day and age about taking action to reduce the risks and ignoring all the medical evidence of the effects of repeated concussions is the real issue at stake.
Between my playing days and my officiating career, I returned to work through 26 or 27 concussions. That's an estimate of the ones I can surmise in retropect that I sustained. There were probably others as well that are lost to time, although my long term memory remains sharp as a tack. My short-term memory has suffered big time, though. I joke about senior moments but I suspect all the concussions played into it.
Back when I was playing and for most of my officiating career, we knew very little about concussions. Wayne Gretzky's recent pronouncement is right on the mark: If you had a headache, you took a couple aspirin, went to work and hoped it went away.
We have since learned that the after-effects of concussions can be horrible. I wouldn't wish on anyone what many of my playing and officiating brethren -- as well as I -- have gone through.
I do not think that many folks are aware that concussions are nearly as common for hockey officials as they are for players. Some of the worst concussions I had came in the capacity of wearing the striped shirt.
I didn't wear a helmet when I refereed -- a matter of personal choice to me or maybe because I didn't have the nerve to be the trailblazer -- and that no doubt contributed to some of the injuries. No official wore a bucket until Andy Van Hellemond put one on because he was getting paid to do it. That opened the flood gates. Before that, it was the Don Cherry Syndrome: We didn't want to be labeled wussies.
In a refereeing capacity, I've been concussed after falling and hitting my head on the ice. I've been concussed when my head hit the glass above the boards. I've been concussed after I was accidentally(?) elbowed. I viewed it as just part of the game, because I was hardly alone. Most officials could share their own similar war stories with you.
Where concussions were concerned, we players and officials were (sometimes literally) in the Dark Ages. That was especially true in my playing years of the 1970s to early 1980s, when toe-to-toe slugfests were the order the day and we paid no head to concussion symptoms because we didn't know any better. It has only been years later that many learned we did ourselves no favors by sacrificing quality of life to tough it out on the ice when we "got our bell rung."
Even today, most players and officials live in the now, not for the tomorrow. Lots of guys have ignored all the signs and have suffered after they leave the game. Today's players will be no exception because, even though they make far more money than we ever did, money in and of itself can't buy health or lifelong happiness. That's not a ploy for sympathy. It's just the truth.
************************************************************************ 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 serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) at both the Division 1 and Division 3 levels.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains 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.