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Thanksgiving Night (Nov. 22), 1979: Quebec Nordiques at Boston Bruins. My lifelong dream came true. I made my NHL debut on this evening, in my hometown, no less, with my family in attendance.
Jean Ratelle had a hat trick for Boston. I got the Dorchester Hat Trick plus one. I fought Wayne Cashman in the warmups and then Terry O'Reilly, Stan Jonathon and Al Secord in the game. I thought I was going to battle John Wensink. We fought in the AHL when I was with New Haven and JW was with Rochester being coached by Don Cherry.
A lot of people poo-poo my career saying "BUT you only played in 21 NHL Regular season games." My response was and still is, "ONE would have been enough!"
Others say, "you were just a goon with a college education." My reply is that I had enough brains to realize what my only path to the NHL would be: If I could have been a Ratelle or a Jean Beliveau, I would have. I had to work within my abilities. I was physically big, strong and willing to drop the gloves.
Actually, the turning point of my pro playing career also happened on Thanksgiving; two years earlier in 1977.
Unbeknownst to me, Thanksgiving 1977 was a turning point in my struggling professional hockey career. On that night, in a World Hockey Association game between the Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers, a bully-laden Bulls team pulverized a bunch of undersized skill players on Cincinnati.
Shortly thereafter, the Stingers signed me to a contract to protect their skill players and provide some more toughness to the lineup. That was my entry into the WHA and, later, into the NHL.
I had a lot to be thankful for on those Thanksgiving nights in '77 and '79.
I'm not being facetious here. As a hockey player with rather limited natural ability, I had to fight the odds (usually quite literally) just to play minor league hockey in the NAHL and AHL. The odds were even steeper against making it to the WHA, much less to the NHL. But I managed to do all of that because win or lose, I was fearless and willing to do whatever it took to stay in the game.
My role was to be an enforcer and drop the gloves. But an enforcer also needs people to help him establish his reputation. People nowadays scoff at the idea that there ever was a "code" among fighters, but there truly was. Part of that code was that, once you were an established fighter, you would oblige a new kid on the block by giving him a chance to prove himself.
To those who don't like or understand hockey, especially the old-time variety, it may be strange to wrap your mind around the notion that someone is doing you a favor by fighting you. But it's true.
Once a fighter earned his stripes as a recognized NHL tough guy and became a regular in the lineup, he was able to fight less. He could reserve the fisticuffs for situations where a teammate needed to be defended or in which his team listless and there was a chance that a fight could light an emotional spark.
Fighting an unknown was much more of a risk to the established enforcer than to the aspiring one who challenged him. The unknown guy had a reputation to gain, even if the fight was indecisive or he held his own but the big-name guy ultimately won. The other guy was fighting to protect his own reputation, and a dismissive wave-off of the challenge was an even bigger insult to the upstart than if they dropped the gloves and the established guy beat the dog out of him.
I am proud to say that I held my own in all three of my fights in Boston that night. O'Reilly was a legend and Jonathan was an undersized player in terms of height but was, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest and toughest sonofaguns in the game.
It was people like O'Reilly who were the truly elite tough guys in the NHL, and who gave someone like me the chance to be perceived as a tough guy because I sought him out and fought him was something that I was legitimately very grateful about then and now.
The only thing that could made that night better for me is if my team had won the game. Alas, as was usually the case on the Bruins' smaller-than-standard home ice on those days, the Boston team was a little too much for the visiting side.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American readers!
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