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National Hockey League officials spend their lives on the road during the season. There is no such thing as a homestand when you're an official. In practical terms, that means you simply work through illnesses and injuries whenever possible.
In hockey, there's a difference between being hurt (i.e., dealing with pain) and being injured (i.e., something that prevents you from playing or officiating). Nowadays, when my knees creak and my hips give me issues, I think back to some of the issues that I played/officiated through and I wonder how smart it was. But then I think, "You'd do it all over again in a heartbeat."
That, I would. As my father used to say to me, "Are they paying you to be a referee? Then go be a referee."
The truth of the matter is that I prided myself of not missing games. Broken ribs, broken fingers. Knee needed surgery. Cancer treatments. The flu, with a 102 degree temperature. Taking a few aspirin with concussion symptoms then going out there. I worked through them all and I was far from the only one with that mindset.
If a situation arises where an official need attention on the job, it is the home team's training staff that tends to him. During my refereeing career, many of my most cherished friendships were with the trainers, equipment managers and arena employees. Those folks do a great job, and always treated me well.
When I started out as a referee, officials wore virtually no protective equipment on the ice. Actually, when traveling by airplane, we could fit the gear beneath the seat in front of us. The elbow pads were like basketball knee pads.
One night in Winnipeg, I refereed a game between the Jets and New York Islanders. Someone drilled a puck that caught me flush on the ulner nerve of my humerus (the "funny bone"). I felt an indescribable level of immediate agony that radiated through my entire body.
All I could do at the moment was exit the ice with the help of an arena employee friend, race up the tunnel as I took off my sweater and try to make a dash for the officials' room. I made it off the ice, at least, but I could not hold back from spewing.
As I settled down and got my wits about me again, I started to feel human again. I was relieved that I hadn't just puked in front of an arena full of people and the two teams on the ice.
"Sorry," I said to my friend. "At least no one but you had to see that!"
"Well, me and them," he said with a pointing gesture.
I looked where he was pointing. One of television camera men had followed nearby and I was on live television as well as the jumbotron at the arena.
I was mortified, and my face told the tale. Sheepishly, I returned to the ice. I knew I was in for a razzing. Sure enough, legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour was doubled over in laughter after seeing my performance.
"That was one of the funniest things I've ever seen!" he said, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses.
So there you have it, folks.
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.
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