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I am an emotional person by nature. Unapologetically, I wear my heart on my sleeve, for better and for worse. I am not ashamed to say that I got really teary last night as my family put sticks outside our door -- as many are doing -- to honor the memory of those who perished and those parents, families, friends in grief after the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy.
The response worldwide is proof positive that hockey the hockey world, for all its differences and bickering, is a family. Right now, we are all hurting together. Even so, my God, I can't imagine what the parents of the kids who perished are going through.
I've lost plenty of people near and dear to me, including my dad and many close friends. I've survived stage 3 colon cancer. I was once on an airplane trip that came within a whisker of becoming a statistic. People were screaming, and praying aloud.
As a hockey lifer, playing and officiating the game, the dangers of travel lurk constantly but remain unspoken. My heart bleeds now for those lost in the Humboldt bus accident, just as it bleeds to this day for Duncan MacPherson, the victims and survivors of the Swift Current Broncos bus tragedy, the Lokomotiv airplane disaster and others. It never gets any easier.
The fleetingness of life is something of which I am always aware. I've always fought onward, not because I am afraid of death itself but because being alive for my family is something worth fighting for.
All that said, the thought of burying your own child is so unspeakably horrific that it is something that makes me shudder. I would never wish it on anyone. When tragedies such as Humboldt happen, it reminds me to cherish my sons and every day I have on this earth with them.
As I said, I'm an emotional guy. I can't stand to watch "Toy Story" when a now nearly-grown Andy gives his toys away and heads off to college. It brings me to tears. I dread that day in my own family, quite honestly. You want to protect your children, from their first breath to that toddler's bumpety-bump down the steps, through all the very small problems of childhood to the dramas of adolescence and right into adulthood. The world can be a cruel place, and so much is beyond your control.
I hold the tears back and my fears as I watch my older boy, McCauley, head up the street in his car, off to college, off to an assignment for officiating or off to someplace or another without me there to keep up the guard. There I am, hoping he arrives there safely and gets home safely.
I have trained many officials and try to prepare them for what's in store. But it's different when it's your own flesh-and-blood and knowing what's involved for an official having to deal with fans, coaches and players. They often treat officials like they are less than human. I had a boss in the NHL who treated "his" guys the same way. Believe me, it takes a lot intestinal fortitude and love for the game to deal with it. I had great mentors to guide me. I wish the same for my boys, both at the arena and in life.
It was tough enough watching McCauley get a second concussion and then have to stop playing. I hate looking at all the team pictures when he was a mite, squirt and peewee, with that big smile on his face. Now he can't play. It seems like a big deal. But I tell him and myself that it's time to rethink that. In life, there are other deals that are bigger.
My younger boy, Max, is 16. He plays junior hockey. He rides the buses and planes all over the country, just as I did as a player and referee. I walked by his room over the weekend, with both boys gone. I nearly welled up with tears.
As I write this, though, I just can't hold back the flood as I know I have to let McCauley go very soon and Max all too shortly thereafter. It's worse than "Toy Story" for me, because it's life with all the uncertainties, joys and sorrows, human kindness and human cruelty, pleasures and pains that it brings. Things that parents are powerless to handpick for the good for their kids.
Last night, I cried, too. I cried when we put the crossed sticks out to honor the Broncos.
So now you know my secret. I'm supposed to be a tough guy -- an old-school hockey enforcer and take-no-guff referee -- and I cry at "Toy Story." I cry that my little boys aren't little anymore. I tear up with hope of my guys, who are alive and off doing their thing, carving it out and creating a life as they pursue their dreams. I cry even harder for those boys who will never get that chance, and for the dads and moms who will have to try to reconcile it for the rest of their own lives on this earth.
Dammit.... I've gone through a box of Kleenex here. Can we just talk about the Stanley Cup playoffs or how great the Frozen Four were? The latter was really well played and well officiated. The crew in the finals was one of mine, and they did great. I couldn't be prouder.
Well, now I find myself welling up again but in pride. Been a long week, and it's only Tuesday.
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.