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The (Canadian) Dollars & Nonsense of NHL Officiating

April 7, 2016, 12:06 PM ET [6 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

There are many aspects to NHL officiating in the NHL about which the public is unaware -- and many probably don't care, but which matter deeply to the men in stripes. In this instance, I am talking about how officials get paid.

NHL referees and linesmen who live in Canada are paid in Canadian dollars. No other people on the ice, behind the benches or in NHL front offices get paid in that currency. Everyone else gets paid in U.S. dollars nowadays. When I played for the Quebec Nordiques, I insisted on getting U.S. currency, and it got me a lot further in Canada.

The same thing goes for retired officials' pensions. Some of us get paid in Canadian funds. They picked seven of us to get this (unwelcomed) privilege. I was one. This year, it's meant a 40 percent reduction of income.

Why? Go ask Canadian Revenue. What I can say is that a 40% income reduction even before Uncle Sam's taxes does not create a warm and fuzzy feeling that the league we gave the best years of our lives to care about our well-being afterwards.

"So what?". you say. "Didn't you make a good living while you were an active official?"

Yes, but not nearly enough to live off the rest of one's life. The NHL pension pays officials roughly $1,000 a year per year of service. Keep the math simple: Twenty years of service equals $20,000 a year. Now take 40 percent off of that for Canadian dollars. Then subtract taxes.

Have fun trying to subsist on that as sole income, especially if you're still supporting a family. You can't.

An NHL official's pay scale is based on his length of service. I first signed a contract in 1985 and got slotted in year one, minor league "level one" on the pay scale. Any NHL game was paid at a slightly higher rate than the AHL rate I was getting bi weekly. The pay incrementally increased each year. A Referee had to work 57 games at the NHL level to get a full-time NHL contract. I got to that milestone in 1988-89. My pay bumped up to the NHL "full time # " or about $45,000 at that time.

When I hit the magic number, I reminded John McCauley that it was my 57th NHL game.

John responded, "Paul, don't you think I can count?"

I smiled. I was now an "official official" in the NHL. That year, I also worked my first Stanley Cup playoff game: Detroit at Chicago. I called 1 minor for tripping. Keenan and Demers were the coaches. I remember it well and fondly.

After the 1993 strike, my pay almost doubled. By the end of my NHL career, I finished up at a salary of about $240K. My severance was two years salary paid out over four. However, because of health issues, my bout with cancer and assorted other items of wear and tear, I had to find my own life insurance after a long search. I was not covered by the same policy the others Officials were covered under. When I left the NHL, it was virtually impossible for me to get any insurance including life and health because of "pre exisitng conditions." Gary Bettman and Bill Daly did assist me and I finally did get my severance insurance. But it was a grind that others did not have to face. So much for equal protection under collective bargaining.

During my career, every NHL official was contracted to work 72 games. In my 17 years of working for the NHL -- 11 with Bryan Lewis as the head of officiating -- I did not work a full 72 games. One year, however, I did work 73 (which amounted to about a $3,000 bonus). Randy Hall, the person in charge of officials' assignments in my final year of refereeing, asked me if I'd had missed a lot of time with injuries during my career because I was only nearing 1,000 career games at that point. Well, no, I didn't miss time with injuries. I routinely worked through the few injuries that I had. The fact is that my assignments were given to others in a plan that only a chosen few were privy to know.

Here's what happened: Colin Campbell said off the cuff as he is prone to do-- he didn't know he'd be quoted on it many years later-- that he was fine with giving bonuses to some NHL officials but he refused to give an extra nickel to the others. I was among the others.

With then-NHLOA President Terry Gregson (wink, wink) well aware of this scheme, the NHL did an end-around on the compensation system: some officials got their regular games and the added"bonus" games over and above the contracted number. Thus, they cashed in by receiving an individualized per-game fee for those many extra games.

An official's salary divided by the number of contracted games equals his per-game fee. Any games above the 72 number are a paid bonus at an individual per-game rate.

For example, if a veteran ref was making $300,000, divide that by 72 and multiply it by the number of extra games. It's like another $4,000 per game which when multiplied by 10 or 15 extra games for someone who also works four rounds of playoffs, can add up to a pile of dough near or above $50,000 + for that year.

You could go buy a nice car, cash, with all that extra dough being tossed your way. It would even make you think warmly of the boss when you got your year end check or badly if you were one of those not on "the preferred list."

I was hardly the only NHL official in the boat that never left the pier to cash cow heaven. Well, it was what it was. I had a good run despite it.

This is going to ruffle some feathers, but if you know anything about me, you know I speak my mind. This is my opinion: At the point the NHL set up the arbitrary bonuses the arrangement totally destroyed what a UNION is supposed to be.

Economically, it became an every man for himself scenario, currying favor instead of what a UNION represents. The president of our Union at that time, should have blown the whistle on this arbitrary discrimination. Neither the President nor any of the executives raised this as an issue.

Thus, a handful of "most favored nation" officials benefited from this arrangement. The rest of the rank-and-file saw zero benefit from it.

Listen, we all have families to feed. I don't begrudge any of the guys who got extra money. As such, I won't name names about which officials got bonuses. That's not the point. On the other hand, it was interesting that our UNION president saw to it that no one said, " Wait a minute" and blew the whistle to stop this practice. The chosen few were well taken care of in this bonus arrangement. They were all senior guys. When issues arose before our group, they could sway the rank and file with their seniority and thus any vote.

Well, good for them. Not so good for the dues-paying members who got left behind. As for myself, well, I was no favorite of the NHL officiating director, and there was nothing I could really do about it. You can't fight City Hall. The whole system used the most base of human weakness -- greed.

Another blunder that was made back then was trying to rush a number of linesmen into making the transition to NHL referees. That didn't work, either, except in one case. The rest of the guys needed more experience at calling penalties instead of watching them called. Many just weren't ready for the switch.

There were other guys with lots of raw potential working their way up from the minors who couldn't get the games they needed to master the craft because of the system set up and described above.

Remember, my mentors made me into an NHL referee because they kept me working, working and working some more in various leagues, learning my trade. Ultimately, the system was doomed to failure, some guys lost their jobs and others went back to working the lines in the NHL.

To bring this back up to current times, some of you wonder why many of us from the stripes feel a little strongly about this incident with Don Henderson and Dennis Wideman and how the NHLPA and even the NHLOA haven't risen up? Yes, the system was followed but it was bogus from the get-go.

A financial advisor would probably tell me that I was extremely stupid way back when I was diagnosed with cancer and even when I got the two ruptured discs in my back. As a "hockey guy", I put all my energy into coming back with no thoughts about the economic impact. I reffed for six months while taking chemo every day during that time.

If I had been thinking financially, I would have sat out and stayed out. It would have been much better economically for my family and for me.

But I wasn't raised that way. My dad only missed seven days in 37 years as a teacher and coach at English High School in Boston, despite the pain of a broken tailbone. I learned from my father that if you are going to get a dollar, you work for that dollar.

So for all of you that actually saw me ref and thought I was stupid, well I guess you were right.


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 ECAC.

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.
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