Sticks, Scalpels and Putters

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One of my biggest frustrations with hockey in more recent years has been the way the old-fashioned honest tough guy has been increasingly forced out of the sport. Meanwhile, the stickwork guys and other opportunistic cheap shot artists remain to become less and less accountable for their actions, along with the divers.

When I played and refereed, I detested players who deliberately tried to injure opponents with their sticks.

During my own playing days, I didn’t use my stick on other players — I fought my battles with my fists — and it really bothered me even when a teammate did it to an opposing player. When an opposing player did it to a teammate, my protective instincts kicked into overdrive.

Quick story: When I played for the Quebec Nordiques, one of my teammates was Paul Baxter. I knew firsthand what it was like to play against him. He was a dirty player.

The two of us clashed in the WHA when I was playing for the Cincinnati Stingers and he was on the Nords. Baxter deliberately speared me in the groin so hard that it broke my cup and left me in agony.

Later in the game, I paid him back. He skated around the net with the puck and I had my gloves dropped as soon as I spotted him. I caught him flush with a punch, leaving him bloodied and dazed. He had to be helped off the ice. I didn’t feel bad for him.

Lo and behold, Baxter and I ended up being teammates in the NHL. We got along OK, and continued to show collegiality thereafter although we never became friends. Even so, I never forgot the way he speared me and to other players, nor did I respect that all-too-common aspect of his playing style.

On Feb. 27, 1980, we had a game against the Islanders. I saw Baxter viciously stick Bobby Nystrom; a tough and hard-working player who went on to score the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime against Philadelphia at the end of that season. Nystrom reacted immediately. He beat the stuffings out of Baxter.

I have a confession: As I watched it all unfold from the Nordiques’ bench, I was quietly pulling for Nystrom to teach Baxter a lesson. I also had no desire to fight on Baxter’s behalf. He fully deserved the beat-down that Nystrom gave him.

Ironically, a big part of the reason why I even got my chance in the NHL in the first place was because of the Quebec Nordiques’ fear of one of the worst stickwork guys in league history: the infamous Bobby Schmautz.

There are only two guys from my playing days with whom I can never — to this very day — bring myself to shake hands with or say hello to if we crossed paths off the ice. One was Rick Jodzio. Schmautz was the other. If I saw either one, it would be best for the both of us if we simply ignored each other and kept walking in opposite directions.

Two days before Thanksgiving, there was a game between the Boston Bruins and Nordiques that got out of control. It all started when Schmautz cheap-shotted my close friend Robbie Ftorek. Robbie gave him a dose of his own medicine, slicing Schmautz with his stick. The Bruins counter-retaliated heavily, and there were numerous fights.

My old Cincinnati Stingers coach, Jacques Demers, knew he needed a little extra toughness in his lineup. As a result, I got called up to make my NHL debut in the rematch in Boston. I tangled with Wayne Cashman during the warmups and got into three fights in the game, going up against Terry O’Reilly, Stan Jonathan and Al Secord.

Fast forward a few months. I had been recalled to the Nordiques again. We had a road game in Colorado. By this point Schmautz was no longer with the Bruins. He had been traded to the Edmonton Oilers and then the Colorado Rockies.

Before the game, Robbie told me that he still didn’t trust Schmautz and we all had to keep a close watch on him. Ftorek, who was very small and usually a finesse-oriented player, remained a prime target for Schmautz, especially after the previous incident. I knew it was my job to protect Robbie and our other skill players from getting an “intentionally accidental” stick from Schmautz.

I have known Robbie for years and years, and we were friends even before we played as teammates at the pro level. To this very day, I would have his back and defend him without a moment’s hesitation if he was ever threatened with harm. Our friendship didn’t stop me from doing my job as a referee and giving Ftorek one of the four bench minor I handed out during my later NHL officiating career but that’s just the nature of the normal tensions in the heat of the moment.

“Don’t worry, Robbie,” I said. “Schmautz won’t get anywhere near you.”

Before the game, Demers also reminded us to keep alert whenever Schmautz was on the ice.

“That Schmautz is a trouble maker,” Demers said. “Always has been, always will be. Someone should get that guy one of these days.”

I thought to myself: Why wait? Let’s make tonight the night when Schmautz gets his comeuppance. I certainly wasn’t afraid of the guy, stick in his hands or not.

During the pregame warmup, I skated near the Rockies bench and called over to Colorado coach Don Cherry.

“Hey, Don, will you do me a little favor?” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Can you put Schmautz out there against me?”

Cherry didn’t say anything. He just stared at me and then gave me a look like I was insane when I grinned and nodded after making my request.

The first time I encountered Schmautz on the ice, we were going in different directions. He looked away from me and was vulnerable. I sent my message by tucking in my arm, accelerating into him and delivering a forearm to the sternum that sent Schmautz careening 10 feet backwards.

Was it a bit excessive and gratuitous on my part? Probably. I could have hurt him and what I did had nothing to do with a “hockey play.” Paul Stewart the referee would have penalized Paul Stewart the player. No question about it. However, I will add that at least I took care not to make contact with Schmautz’s head. If I had raised my arm to his head level or led with an elbow, he would have been seriously injured. My initial intent was to send a message, not to maim.

Given what happened immediately thereafter, I kind of wish I had (in this instance only) put an opponent out of commission when I had the chance. Schmautz habitually injured other players with no conscience or remorse, and was a menace to the game. That is why I didn’t have a problem with what Ftorek had done to him earlier in the season.

After I blasted him with my forearm, Schmautz bounced right back to his feet. He made a beeline for me, leading with a raised stick blade that came at my head like a scalpel. The S.O.B. damn near took my eye out. He barely missed. He did, however, open a gash.

I was enraged beyond all rhyme and reason. I totally lost control. Schmautz and I began to joust with our sticks; which is an extremely dangerous and inexcusable act. Naturally, both of us got matching game misconducts.

Still furious, I went after Schmautz again after we were each escorted off the ice. The Rockies bench was on the rink’s northeast corner and the visiting bench was on the southeast side. A long corridor was situated in between the two sides.

As I exited the rink first, I sprinted as fast as I could (yes, I was running on my skates) down the carpeted corridor and found Schmautz before he could get to the Rockies’ dressing room. Still branishing a stick, I swung it at Schmautz. He blocked it with his own stick. Away we went again until we got separated.

The next day, a photo of my hallway confrontation with Schmautz ran in the Denver Post. This picture says it all about how crazy things got:

I wasn’t proud of the Schmautz incident. My rage at Schmautz trying to carve out my eye got the best of me. I will reiterate that I do not condone stick fighting.

On the other hand, I would not be truthful if I said that I ever regretted going after Schmautz. I am just not proud of the means.

First of all, my job was to keep him away from our skill players. I took him out of the game and could not have cared less that I got tossed, too. Secondly, I would certainly have preferred it if Schmautz had just dropped the gloves and we fought the conventional way. He was the one who was too cowardly to put down the stick in the first place and damn near succeeded in maiming and blinding me.

Lastly, Schmautz’s reputation was deserved. He was one of the League’s most feared and hated players because of the despicable ways he wielded his stick. Well, I didn’t fear him but I did hate him — and I don’t use that word lightly or often.

A couple years after the stick fight, I encountered Schmautz at a charity golf tournament in Pawtucket, RI. He was on the putting green when I saw him. We got into it again.

I let it be known that I had not forgotten the way he nearly took out my eye and had injured many other players. He made it clear that he wasn’t the least bit sorry. I felt the enforcer’s rage well up in me again and the confrontation escalated quickly.

Off we went again, jousting this time with golf clubs. We weren’t doing it as a lark. This was for real. I swung my putter at Schmautz’s head (good thing for both of us that I didn’t connect) and he parried it with his putter. Quickly and bravely, Milt Schmidt stepped in between us and we got pulled apart.

In recounting the Schmautz story many years later for HockeyBuzz, I fully realize that I took things to the extreme and my own actions do not look very good. I am not excusing myself for doing things that I do not condone. I prided myself on the Code and players staying with the game’s “honest policeman” boundaries. With Schmautz, I stepped way over that line.

The only reason why I am even telling the story is to make crystal clear just how deeply I feel that the blight on our game isn’t what happens when two players drop the gloves and fight. The blight is the players who are reckless, predatory and vicious with their sticks or other dangerous and cowardly checking methods.

To this day, there are still too many latter-day Schmautz types (OK, maybe not as overt as he was but not too far removed either) in the NHL and other leagues who are allowed to have the privilege of wearing the uniform. These are the sport’s real villains. In the meantime, the guys who serve the purpose of policing the game to protect the skill players from the predatory types are called goons and legislated out of the game.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just a retired goon and referee. To hear some folks say it, it’s hard to know which one is worse.

********* 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 an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (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.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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