They Gotta Have Hart

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In the course of assembling my autobiographical book project, I have relived a whole lot of happy memories and some not-so-happy ones. To steal a line from the song “Home By the Sea,” images of sorrow, pictures of delight: things that go to make up a life.

One of the more painful memories to recount is the events surrounding the 1999 NHL Awards in Toronto.

Something that was to have one of my special nights of my life instead became a wound that will never entirely heal.

Originally, in recognition of battling back from stage three colon cancer to return to refereeing in the NHL, I was bestowed the honor of presenting the Masteron Trophy to Tampa Bay Lightning forward John Cullen for his courageous fight to conquer non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I was both humbled and excited to be chosen as the presenter.

Months earlier, a couple of media members in the PHWA told me they were considering nominating me for the Masterton, even though I was 19 years removed from my playing career and not technically eligible for the award. They wanted to propose making a special exception in my case, which was touching. However, I removed myself from consideration. There were other worthy people, and John was an extremely well-deserving after having come back to play again after missing a season. It would have been my great honor to call out John Cullen’s name and hand him the award.

I bought a tuxedo for the event and my wife bought a dress. We had our travel plans all set. Then I got a phone call from the NHL.

“There’s been a last moment change of plans, Paul,” I was told. “You won’t be presenting the Masterton anymore. The producers got Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, the wrestler, to present the trophy. He’s a celebrity name in Canada and he owns the Calgary Hitmen junior team. Very sorry.”

That stung a lot. I was furious and, to be honest, the memory of it still rankles me to this day. The Masterton goes to the player who best exemplifies perseverance and dedication to the game, qualities that even my naysayers would agree I possessed during my playing and officiating careers.

Moreover, I was deeply involved in the Hockey Fights Cancer cause and still believe strongly in the work they do. To have one hockey figure who survived cancer present the Masterton Trophy to another one would have made a powerful statement. Unfortunately, I guess my participation and the advancement of Hockey Fights Cancer wasn’t as important as whatever tiny smidgen (if any) of outside media attention the show generated for the NHL from Bret Hart’s name being attached to the show.

****** 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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