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More Than He Expectorated

November 21, 2019, 8:49 AM ET [1 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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Back when I was a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania and a rink attendant during Philadelphia Flyers' practices at the Class of 1923 Rink, there were several Flyers players who were tobacco chewers. Although head coach Fred Shero was himself a cigarette chain smoker, he merely tolerated the chewing of tobacco by his players. Being young and being hockey players, the chewers on the team tested how far they could push it with Shero.

One day, Shero couldn't help but notice disgusting brown puddles and lumps on the ice just in front of the benches. He was rarely one to raise his voice to a yell, but this one bothered him. He blew the whistle, stopping practice and loudly demanded that it never happen again.

Then I was summoned and tasked with getting a scraper and removing the tobacco juice from the ice.

"Yes, Mr. Shero," I said, doing as I was told.

It was revolting. If you've ever been on a hockey bench (or baseball dugout), do yourself a favor and try not to look down on the floor. It's pretty nasty.

When I was a referee, sometimes it was like skating through a rainstorm when I skated in front of the benches. Accidentally -- at least usually -- players would often spit out water, hock loogies, etc. right on whoever skated by at the just the wrong moment. My referee sweaters went through even more laundry cycles than my team jerseys did during my playing days.

In the latter part of the 1990s, after the massive publicity given to the Major League Baseball incident in which Roberto Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck, Brian Burke put out a memo that any NHL player involved in a spitting incident would receive a 20-game suspension.

In December 1998, Tampa Bay Lightning center Chris Gratton (recently reacquired by Tampa from the Philadelphia Flyers) -- it may have been his second or third game back after the trade -- was trying to get involved in an on-ice altercation between teammate Darcy Tucker and Vaclav Varada. Working in conjunction with the linesmen and fellow referee Dan Marouelli, I physically prevented Gratton from intervening. He resisted, and attempted to get in my face, screaming at me. We exchanged heated words. He then spit on my sweater. With seven seconds left in the game, he was done for the night a little early.

At the time, there was a gross misconduct penalty in the NHL Rule Book. It has since been removed from being a category of its own, and folded into the Match Penalty rule. However, Gross Misconduct fell within the purview of something that one player does to another (hair pulling, biting, spitting, etc) rather than to a referee or linesman. Instead, what Gratton did fell under the "Abuse of an Official" category, specifically the section that carries an automatic three-game suspension for physically or verbally demeaning an on-ice official while in the act of trying to get involved in -- or to continue -- an altercation on the ice.

Abuse of an official suspensions are issued by the referee, and then reviewed by the NHL based on the required written report submitted by the official as well as video evidence and any other pertinent information. I wrote it up as a three-game suspension related to spitting on me after he was prevented from getting involved in the Tucker-Varada altercation.

Internally, the league debated the appropriate length of suspension. This was a test case of the Burke memo specifying a 20-game suspension.

Although I was upset with Gratton, I opined to Burke that only the automatic three-game ban was appropriate here. There was nothing in the NHL Rule Book about a 20-gamer for spitting -- again, it was a memo, nothing formally codified -- and I strongly suspected that a) the NHLPA would vehemently object and back the inevitable appeal that would follow a 20-game ruling, and b) the Rule Book is your shield, meaning the automatic three-gamer under the applicable Abuse of Official category was easy to defend.

A three-game suspension was announced on Fri. Dec. 25, 1998. Merry Christmas. Gratton's gift was (potentially) 17 fewer games of missed time, and the league's was sparing itself yet another battle with the players' union.

I do not recall for certain, but I believe the Burke 20-game-suspension-for-spitting memo died on the vine after the Gratton three-gamer. Couldn't very well try to justify three games for one incident and then turn around smack down someone else with 20 the next time there was such an incident.

All of these memories came, shall we say, flooding back to me when Brad Marchand had his licking incidents in the playoffs a few year. That particular transgression wasn't even covered in the old Gross Misconduct rule -- and this one was about as "gross" as it gets -- because, who LICKS an opponent?! The NHL had to retro-ban it by clarifying that it merits a match penalty, and Marchand hasn't done it since.

Those same memories came up again this week when the NHL suspended Washington's Garnet Hathaway for, yup, three games for spitting on Vancouver defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Hathaway did it in response to a sucker punch while the two were being (ineffectively) separated by the officials during a multi-player altercation behind the net that started a moment or two before a Washington goal and escalated right after it.

I guess you can say that Hathaway, in the confrontation, got more than he expectorated.

By the way, I was at a recent autograph signing event where I encountered Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron (whom I know a little bit dating back to early in his career when I worked for the Bruins) and Marchand (whom I think I had very briefly met once before). Both guys were friendly. I shook both of their hands.

Afterwards, someone asked me if I was afraid Marchand would lick me.

I said, "Nah, I'm a retired ref. Brad is allergic to refs."


A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, 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.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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