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Congratulations to the Hockey Hall of Fame induction class of 2018, who will be celebrated over this coming weekend through the induction ceremony on Monday night: Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, Willie O'Ree, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Alexander Yakushev, Jayna Hefford, Joe Bowen (Foster Hewitt Award) and Larry Brooks (Elmer Ferguson Award).
For today's blog, I thought I'd share some of my own reflections on Brodeur, St. Louis, O'Ree and Bettman.
By anyone's definition, Martin Brodeur was one of the game's all-time great goaltenders. His retirement was the end of an era in hockey. He was a once-in-a-lifetime player who was a model of consistency on the ice.
Marty was the cornerstone of the Devils being a perennial Stanley Cup contender for most of the latter part of my active officiating career. To this day, when I’m watching a hockey game and I watch goaltenders, I often use Brodeur as the measuring stick. I have nothing but the highest respect for him as far as both his ability and longevity go.
Long before Brodeur played his first NHL game, I knew his late father, Denis. I worked a lot of games at the Montreal Forum and I used to see Denis, who was a photographer. He would occasionally drop by the officials' room and give me a picture. We always said hello when we saw each other and chatted for awhile.
He was a friendly, down-to-earth guy whom I looked forward to seeing every time I saw a game in Montreal come up on my schedule. Much of the joy of being in hockey comes off the ice in getting to know the people who work in and near the arenas: the security guards, the off-ice officials, the photographers, etc.
Denis Brodeur was a perfect example. He was one hell of a good photographer, too. He had a special knack for capturing the drama and personality of the game.
On the ice, I had a good relationship with a lot of the goaltenders around the NHL. My relationship with Martin Brodeur was genuinely friendly and conversational for many years. We had some laughs and he always seemed amused by my attempts to speak French to him.
Marty liked me. But that all changed one night when I was refereeing the opening night game in New Jersey between the Devils and the Rangers.
Noted hockey pest Matthew Barnaby was playing for the Rangers. In the first period, Barnaby stuck his backside in Brodeur’s crease. Marty two-handed him with a heavy slash.
I gave Brodeur a match penalty and threw him out of the game.
Afterwards, he came up to me after the game and said, "Paul, don't ever speak to me again. I'm never going to talk to you again."
Meanwhile, Lou Lamoriello came over and said to me, "Stewy, holy hell, he was just clearing the crease."
I said, "Yeah, but he two-handed him. I realize it’s Barnaby, but it is what it is. If I was playing and Marty hacked me like that, I would have turned around and beat the hell out of him."
For the rest of my career, Martin Brodeur refused to talk to me when he saw me. That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me. I still respect the hell out of his career and consider it an honor to have been on the ice with one of the best ever to play the toughest position in hockey.
I haven't encountered him in many years but I've heard that Marty has long since gotten over our little tiff and has said I made the right call on that long-ago night. We'd probably have a good laugh about it nowadays. That's the way this business is, and I'd love to get that chance to share a few smiles again.
No matter what, in my view, Martin Brodeur would still be one of the game's all-time greats at any position.
Martin St. Louis
I love a good underdog story, and Marty St. Louis is the epitome of the underdog made good. He was undrafted and severely undersized. He played four years of collegiate hockey at the University of Vermont, played in the now-defunct International Hockey League, spent the better part of three seasons in the American Hockey League and scored just four goals in his first 69 games in the NHL with the Calgary Flames before latching on with Tampa Bay.
The rest is history. What a magnificent player he was, and a gentlemanly one (three Lady Byng Trophy wins) as well. Along with Paul Kariya -- Theo Fleury and Pat Verbeek were in a different category, since they were feisty little players -- it was St. Louis who showed that the small finesse forward still had a role in the game at a time when they were truly on the endangered species list in the NHL. Two Art Ross Trophies, a Hart Trophy and a Ted Lindsay Award (formerly Lester Pearson Trophy) will open a few eyes.
Although St. Louis was only just starting to come into his own at the NHL level at the time I retired as an active referee, he was a player I enjoyed watching; an absolute magician with the puck on his stick who could regularly do things that most players could only dream of doing. All he needed was a true opportunity to show what he could do, and he never lost faith in himself.
I always admired Willie O'Ree as a man of courage, strength and dignity but never had the privilege of really getting to know him until the 1999 NHL All-Star Weekend. What an incredible gentleman he is. On a boating trip, I got to talking to him and found him to be one of the most genuinely caring, stately and yet down-to-earth human beings I have ever met. To this very day, he burns with a passion for life, helping others and bringing smiles to people's faces.
I'll also let you in on a little secret from the gala over All-Star Weekend. Willie could put people less than half his age to shame with his moves and energy on a dance floor.
In the years since then, I've seen Willie countless times at charity events and other functions. Each and every time, it makes my day happier for having been in his presence. If there were a "Human Being Hall of Fame", Willie O'Ree would have inducted many, many years ago.
Bettman is a controversial figure in many circles. That includes not only among fans and segments of the media, but also among some on the playing and officiating sides of the game. Some folks detest him and his hawkish positions on lockouts and other issues.
What I will say in that regard is this: Whatever your opinions are on him, as a commissioner it is hard to objectively deny that he has been very good at the job he was hired to do. Over his tenure, Bettman has grown the revenue of the game exponentially while driving a hard bargain in negotiations, all the while doing the equivalent of herding cats in trying to keep team owners in line with his main objectives.
On a professional level, I respect Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly even if I don’t always agree with some of their decisions. Today, however, I prefer to focus on on another side of the story: Gary Bettman the human being. I believe in my heart that you should judge a person by how he or she treats you, and not by what others say about that person.
When I was going through my bout with colon cancer, and it was far from a certainty or even a probability that I would survive it, Gary Bettman was there for me. He treated me and my family with kindness and compassion.
He didn’t do it for the sake of publicity. There was no personal gain it in for him.
Gary was one of the first people to call me during my ordeal. He told me that, no matter what happened, he would personally make sure that my family was taken care of. He told me not to hesitate to ask if there was anything I needed. I never saw a single bill for my cancer treatments, because the commissioner personally made sure every cent of it was paid by the League.
Mr. Bettman is a man to whom I will be forever grateful, whatever my differences with the League about certain rules and the handling of aspects of officiating. It meant a lot to me that he was in attendance at the game in New Jersey on Nov. 13, 1999, when I made my NHL refereeing return.
Being able to resume my refereeing career from 1999 to 2003 and officiating my 1,000th career game in my hometown of Boston were things that I often did not think would be possible during the worst stretch of dealing with cancer. I felt blessed just to be alive for my family. To make it back to the NHL was another blessing.
I never forget the people who have treated my kindly, just as I have a long memory for those who mistreated me and others about whom I care deeply. In your lowest and most vulnerable times, that’s when you learn a lot about the character of those around you.
Whatever hockey-related differences and personal concerns over the NHL's handling of other issues that I may have, of which there many, Gary Bettman the person is a good man. He's also made an indelible mark on shaping the game over the last few decades as commissioner. He belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. That is all I have to say about that.
A Class of 2018 inductee to 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. Today, Stewart is the director of hockey officiating for the ECAC. Visit his official website at YaWannaGo.com