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Make the Right Call: My Journey from Enforcer to Referee

October 17, 2013, 10:26 AM ET [66 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Editor's Note: HockeyBuzz is thrilled to add Paul Stewart to our blogging team. Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born person to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee.

After his collegiate career at the University of Pennsylvania, “Stewey” embarked on a professional career as an enforcer and checking line winger, playing in both the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League, appearing in 21 games with the Quebec Nordiques in 1979-80.

In 1983, Stewart entered the NHL’s Trainee Program to learn how to be a referee. He worked his way up the ladder over the next three seasons. Officiating his first NHL game on March 27, 1986, Stewart embarked on a lengthy NHL officiating career. On March 15, 2003, he became the only American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

The accomplishment was a testament to his courage and determination.

In February 1998, Stewart was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer only a few days after the birth of his first child, McCauley. Determined not to let cancer beat him, he underwent an aggressive course of chemotherapy and made it back to the NHL within nine months. On April 3, 2003, the Boston-area native retired from the NHL after officiating a game in his hometown.

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). He also 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.

Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.


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MAKE THE RIGHT CALL: My JOURNEY FROM HOCKEY ENFORCER TO HOCKEY REF

I am excited to be added to the HockeyBuzz team. In upcoming blogs, I plan to talk about a variety of topics related to hockey officiating, interpreting the rulebook and the culture of the game. Over the course of the current season, we will look periodically look at controversial plays as they arise.

As someone who played the sport professionally and has been involved on the officiating side of the game for 30 years, including the better part of 17 years as an NHL referee, I have seen hockey from every angle. I am someone who has strong beliefs but also loves to have a good time. I make no apologies for who I am or for the convictions about the game that I hold close to my heart.

I often tell the officials I supervise that they are paid to make the right call. Make it to the absolute best of your ability, and be fearless about it. There is no such thing as giving 110 percent. There’s only 100 percent to give, and you need to give that full commitment each and every time you step through that tunnel onto the ice.

People often talk about accountability, and that’s certainly important. But you know what else is important, especially if you are going to have longevity in this game? Acceptability. When someone has acceptability, he can be forgiven for a mistake – even a major one – and still command respect.

One thing that I think people don’t understand about me is that I left the game twice. That takes a lot of toughness to deal with when hockey is your life. When my playing career was over, it was rough and I went through some tough times. I had to get perspective on not being a player anymore.

Starting in 1983, I transitioned to the officiating part of the game and I made it back to the NHL again. I found the urgency I needed for my life in the game of hockey.

When I was making the transition from player to referee, the biggest on-ice adjustment for me was definitely the skating. It’s a different type of skating – knowing when to skate, as well as skating without a stick. There’s also a lot of backward skating involved, and I was a forward when I played. It wasn’t a question of the stamina part of skating. In my youth, I felt like I could skate all day, but it was just different skating with a different purpose than pursuing the puck or taking the body.

Now there were some times back then when I’d see a player lined up perfect along the boards and I’d want to body check him! Seriously, though, there was an adjustment the way you approach the game, both from the physical and mental standpoint.

My transition from player to referee never would have been possible without people like John McCauley (a longtime NHL referee who later served as the NHL’s director officiating from 1986 until his death in 1989), Dave Newell, Wally Harris, Scotty Morrison, Jim Gregory, Kerry Fraser, and other people who really wanted to help me learn and see me succeed.

I refereed over 1,000 games in the NHL, and there was a whole other set of emotions in leaving the game for a second time in 2003.

There were lots of things that I loved about being an NHL referee. I loved the interaction and camaraderie with my teammates – my fellow officials - on and off the ice. I liked dealing with a lot of the players and some of the coaches.

Most of all, I loved the connections with the fans. Hockey fans would come up to you all the time, at hotels, bars, restaurants or wherever. They’d tell you what they thought of you, whether it was good or bad. They’d remember things you did years ago that you’d forgotten about. Sometimes they’d just make you laugh. Most of them were really good people when you got to talk to them, and they’d get to see you in a different way away from the rink.

One night when I was working a game in Winnipeg, I had to jump up on the boards to avoid the puck. All the sudden, some fan in the stands grabbed me and punched me in the face. I blew the whistle and the bench is screaming at me, ‘Why the hell did you just the blow the whistle?’ I said, ‘Because some fan just punched me.’ Someone said, ‘Really? How much do we owe him?’

That situation wasn’t too funny to me right when it happened, but it was something I had to laugh about afterwards. Going out on the ice was always an adrenaline rush and an honor. You never knew what situation might pop up next, and that was part of what made the job exciting. I had confidence in my knowledge of the rules, confidence in my ability to handle situations and make the right call and to treat the game with the respect it deserves.

My least favorite part of the job happened after the death of John McCauley. In the later years, my relationship with my immediate managers was not as good. John was such a tremendous person on and off the ice, and I named my son McCauley John in his honor. Nowadays, John’s own son, Wes, is one of the top young referees in the NHL. I was happy to see him working games in the Stanley Cup Finals earlier this year.

There were two reasons why I retired in 2003. The main reason was from a physical standpoint, injuries took their toll and it was taking me longer and getting harder to get ready for the game. I had been through chemotherapy after I was diagnosed with cancer, been through a lot of wear and tear on my body over the years. I had to be honest with myself that I couldn’t perform up to the level I expected from myself.

Secondly, I started to feel a lack of respect from some of the League management who assigned the games. I had enough of dealing with people who weren’t interested in being helpful or constructive. Let’s put it this way, when I talk about the biggest challenges of the latter part of my NHL refereeing career, I tell them that first I had to deal with colon cancer and then I had to deal with Colin Campbell.

When I first came into the League, whether as a player or an official, if someone had a problem with you, you settled it one-on-one. Maybe you had it out in behind closed doors or whatever. The real point here is about being upfront, and showing respect, which is what I try to remember now that I direct collegiate and KHL officials.

Nowadays there are a lot of officials who don’t want be the one to make the tough, gutsy call. That’s especially true of situations where supplementary discipline could be involved. The game may take place on a Sunday but the calls get made on Tuesday by video review by the League. Plain and simple, leagues have taken too much judgment and interpretation away from officials.

The game evolves and the rulebook changes, and that’s something everybody has to adjust to; officials as well the players. There were lots of big changes to NHL hockey over the course of my refereeing career: the speed of play, the loss of the respect factor and various rule changes.

One of the biggest changes that come to mind is all the expansion of the league that took place. Over the latter part of my career, you might only go to a city or officiate a game involving a certain team once or twice the entire season. You couldn’t build quite the same rapport.

People have asked my views on the two-referee system. As a referee, I accepted it and adapted to working with a refereeing partner. A successful officiating team is not all that different from a successful hockey club. It’s lot like a marriage. If it’s going to work, it takes chemistry and strong communication. You have to work in synch, and help each other out. You have to know where to look and where to position yourself. You also can’t forget the role of the linesmen in the team. It sounds like a cliché but it really does take a total team effort to be successful.

Natural evolution of the sport is one thing. It was some of more intrusive changes that were made by the League over the years that I strenuously objected to.

From an official’s standpoint, I was against the helmets for referees and against taking the officials’ names off their sweaters. One of the criticisms that got thrown at me was, ‘Oh, this guy wants to be the show.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was naturally enthusiastic, naturally aggressive and I liked to have fun out there because I love the game so much.

It was never about self-promotion or trying to be the center of attention. I wanted the games to have a good flow to them and to call a good game. As far as taking the names off the sweaters, why should we try to be like the NFL? Football is football and hockey is hockey.

Listen, I’ve had a one-on-one audience with Gary Bettman and Bill Daly. Those guys catch a lot of heat sometimes but they’ve always been good to me. I’ve called an influential NHL owner such as Ed Snider about issues I wanted to discuss, and he’s called me back personally – not a secretary calling, Mr. Snider himself – within five minutes. That’s showing genuine mutual respect.

But when certain people involved in supervisor rules in the League do things in a backhanded way and hide behind their desk or computer, and they won’t discuss things like a man, well, I don’t have time for that in my life. I give those people the Amish treatment: I shun them from my life.

Nowadays, I’m an officiating consultant to the KHL, the director of officiating for the ECAC, and I also run officiating camps. I always tell the people who work for me and that I’ve worked with– more than 400 officials – that I will only put them in position to succeed, not set them up to fail.

In giving back to the game and showing respect for the game, you owe people your honesty. Maybe a guy has a bad hip and his skating isn’t up to par or maybe the game has passed him by, I always try to give honest assessments and to make suggestions to be helpful and constructive. That’s what the people who helped me so much did for me.

A few years ago, I had a game where a referee didn’t show up. I conferred with the teams and one of the coaches asked if I would referee the game. I told him no, I don’t do that anymore. I gave everything I had to give on the rink, and there’s nothing left to give. So do you know what I did? I went to a young official in the stands and gave him the opportunity to referee the game. That’s what John McCauley once did for me. He believed in me and gave me a chance.

When I look back at my officiating career in the NHL, I left with no regrets. There’s a lot about the NHL that I’ll always love but the time came to move on and to give back to the game in other ways.
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