Advice for a Brother in Stripes: Dealing With Tough Times


One one of the most rewarding parts of my current work is the opportunity it gives me to communicate with and teach both current young officials and those who aspire to the tough but noble profession of being a sports arbiter. Regardless of the sport, be it hockey, baseball, soccer, lacrosse or even basketball or football, many of the guiding principles and personal experiences are similar.

I frequently receive emails — I was going to say letters, but hardly anyone writes the old-fashioned way anymore — from brothers and sisters in stripes, and it is my obligation to pay forward what my own mentors taught me. I owe folks my honesty as well sharing of my knowledge.

Recently, I received an email from a lacrosse official from western Canada, who has been involved in officiating for 20 years and has reached the highest levels of his sport. He has been struggling internally with the downside of officiating: the abuse and negativity that comes with the job.

He noted, quite correctly that, as officials, we all learn to have thick skin. It’s not the “yelling and screaming” in and of itself that wears officials down. Rather, it’s the direct personal assaults that can drain one’s enthusiasm and energy. The official wanted to know if I ever experienced a downturn in my passion for officiating and how I worked through it.

My fellow official raised some excellent, real-word issues. I will share my response with everyone.

Regardless of the sport and the cast of characters who play, coach or spectate, an official always has to don the uniform and represent the honor and integrity of the game. When people care primarily about the score of a game, their behavior and emotions often rise and fall accordingly.

Conversely, an official cannot be concerned with who wins or scores. He or she must always be focused on ensuring that the game is played safely and fairly within the rules. One’s good judgment is honed after gaining experience at all levels on the way up.

Hall of Fame referee John Ashley used to tell me that, as a referee, my brother officials and I were the only sane people in the building that night. Keeping that thought in mind and knowing that it was ultimately I who decided how long a player sat or remained in the game, I realized that I had a lot of power in my hands.

That power and the confidence that came from the knowledge that I was giving 100 percent honest effort helped guide me through many tough games.

Even in the NHL, there were some games that might be considered more “marquee” than others. It doesn’t matter. I was taught by my father and grandfather that whichever game I officiated (or played in, during my playing career) was the most important game in the world that day.

Not everyone gets an NHL assignment, and I knew it was privilege to be there. Besides that, I just loved being out there. For three hours, all my other issues could be put aside while I was at my favorite place in the world. I loved being on the ice and I loved the atmosphere at the rink.

As a former player, I knew that the game was critical for everyone on both teams. It was their livelihood, too. I also respected the people who worked at the rink. The people selling the popcorn, sweeping the seats and taking tickets had a job to do, too, and were expected to do it to the best of their ability. We were all in this together, and everyone there deserved my best, too.

After having spent all those years learning the trade and earning respect as a professional official, the last thing I wanted to do was give something less than my best. I knew there was never a justification to potentially cause a change in the outcome of the game because of my own lack of effort or professionalism. I never wanted to lose the respect that I had worked so heard to earn.

To self-motivate, I told myself, “That’s not going to happen. Not on my watch, Besides that, I am a pro at this job and I’m actually getting paid to do this. Go figure!”

Regarding games where players, coaches and/or fans got personal, nasty and downright obnoxious, well, those folks are helping to pay my salary. Besides that, I knew that coaches and players eventually get fired, traded or released. Most of the especially boisterous fans go home after the game and sleep it off. I do confess that I wished a persistent pounding headache the next morning on the ones fueled by liquid courage.

Apart from that, I had the rulebook on my side. If someone got too out of hand, I had the power to remove them from the game. That even included obnoxious fans who were constantly screaming vile things. Notify security and they’d be escorted from the building. I didn’t use that power very often but the mere knowledge I had that tool at my disposal was comforting.

As I told many miscreants on the ice, “I’ll be here for the end of this game. The question is, will you?”

That was usually enough to silence the person. If not, well, regardless of what “they” thought, I knew I’d be back. I was good at what I did and I had a contract.

Last but not least, regarding parents at youth games, remember this: God doesn’t require people to take a test before they can have children. There’s no license needed to have a child. As such, many children are born to less-than-stellar examples of maturity and sage thinking. Many parents, even some who have or had children in the NHL, have shown us what complete dips they are.

There are too many sports parents who try to live their dreams through their kids. God help the kid or the ref who “screws up” that dream with a bad penalty or a mistake. These are the parents who excessively coddle their children, make them think they are bigger than their team, and try to manage their lives and careers.

Hopefully, you work for good people who have your back. Then you have it easier than many other officials. I was lucky for a few years early in my career. My dad told me, “Yo do whatever John McCauley (the NHL referee-in-chief) says. Do that, and I promise you will be a success.”

I had two people I never wanted to disappoint: John and my dad.

I can also guarantee you this: In your next game, you will see one kid out there that plays like there’s no tomorrow. He’s giving his 100 percent the entire time. You owe it to him to match that level of effort and concentration. Even if you’ve had a rough day, had a flat tire on the way to the game, a tiff with your spouse or (like me) was on chemotherapy for six months, there are no excuses.

Excuses are for losers. Don’t lean on any of them.

As an official, you might be the only person that day who gives a player any honesty. Coaches deceive for specific reasons. Even teammates can have an agenda (usually more playing time). Agents most certainly lie and puff up their clients’ egos to keep the money rolling in. As an official, you must treat him with honesty. Don’t pamper him. He’s no more or less special than anyone else playing in that game, regardless of statistics or the name on the back of the uniform.

They say they just want it fair. Well, hold them to it. Keep it fair. Don’t be intimidated. I never was, and they knew it. It served me well, and will serve you well, too.

Even when you do make a mistake — and we all make them — be honest. Own up to it. Be honest with yourself, too. Critique yourself. Mistakes of judgement or positioning can be corrected the next time around. Errors do to lack of effort are unacceptable. Recognize the difference. Furthermore, study the rules every chance you get. Know the game, feel the pulse and officiate to the best of your ability.

General Patton once said, “they pay me to command.” You are paid to judge, so judge!

As a kid, you played because you loved it. Remember it. While you are there, love it for the kids who are playing now. It’s their time now.

Trust me, your career will fade fast after you retire. Do it with no regrets. Keep smiling. I always did.

May the flow be with you.

****** 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 and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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