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The members of the National Hockey League Officials Association (NHLOA) are currently working without a contract. I am no longer involved in these matters, as I have been retired from the NHL for 11 years.
However, I was glad to read that my brethren in stripes expect to keep working without any interruptions.
Having been through the 17-day strike in 1993 — after which several NHL owners told us privately they would have been fine with the modest raises we were asking had they known beforehand — I can tell you that work stoppages are bad for everyone.
The 1993 strike was also the beginning of the NHL trying to systematically take away the individuality and decision-making discretion of its officials on the ice. I was not in favor of names being taken off the back of officials’ sweaters or the move toward not allowing active officials to speak to the media. It had nothing to do with self-aggrandizement, no matter what some of my critics may think. It had everything to do with professionalism and accountability. If you can’t take the heat, the officiating profession isn’t for you.
At any rate, it occurred to the other day that most people do not know how NHL officials actually get paid. This is how it works.
An NHL official’s pay scale is based on his length of service. I first signed a contract in 1985 and got slotted as year one, level one on the pay scale. The pay incrementally increased each year. We had to work 56 games at the NHL level to get a full-time NHL contract. I got to that milestone in 1988-89.
When I hit the magic number, I reminded John McCauley that it was my 56th NHL game.
John responded, “Paul, don’t you think I can count?”
I smiled. I was now an “official official” in the NHL. That year, I also worked my first Stanley Cup playoff game: Detroit at Chicago.
After the 1993 strike, my pay almost doubled. By the end of my NHL career, I finished up at a salary of about $240K. My severance was two years pay divided by four. However, I had to get my own health insurance when I left the NHL, and that was virtually impossible because of my bout with cancer and assorted other issues.
During my career, every NHL official was contracted to work 72 games. In my 17 years of working for the NHL — 11 with Bryan Lewis as the head of officiating — I did not work a full 72 games. One year, however, I did work 73 (which amounted to about a $3,000 bonus). Randy Hall, the person in charge of officials’ assignments in my final year of refereeing, asked me if I’d had missed a lot of time with injuries during my career because I was only nearing 1,000 career games at that point. Well, no, I didn’t miss time with injuries. I routinely worked through injuries. My assignments were given to others.
Here’s what happened: Colin Campbell said — and didn’t know he’d be quoted on it — that he was fine with giving bonuses to some NHL officials but he refused to give an extra nickel to certain others. I was among the others.
Campbell and NHLOA president Terry Gregson worked out an end-around on the compensation system: some oficials got “bonus” games over and above the contracted number, receiving an individualized per-game fee for the extra games.
An official’s salary divided by the number of contracted games equals his per-game fee. Any games above that are paid bonuses at an individual per-game rate. For example, if a veteran ref was making $300,000, divide that by 72 and multiply it by the number of extra games. It’s like another $4,000 per game and multiplied by 10 for someone who works four rounds of playoffs, it adds up to a bonus $50,000.
I was hardly the only NHL official in that boat.
This is going to ruffle some feathers, but if you know anything about me, you know I speak my mind and let the chips fall where they may. This is my opinion: At the point the NHL set up the arbitrary bonuses the arrangement totally destroyed what a union is supposed to be.
Instead of a united front, it became every man for himself. When Gregson was the president of our union, a handful of “most favored nation” officials benefited from this arrangement. The rest of the rank-and-file saw zero benefit from it.
Listen, we all have families to feed. I don’t begrudge any of the guys who got extra money. As such, I won’t name names about which officials got bonuses. That’s not the point. On the other hand, it was interesting that our president saw to it that he was personally well taken care of in the bonus arrangement as well as some folks he hand-picked.
Well, good for them. Not so go for the dues-paying members who got left behind. As for myself, well, I was no favorite of the NHL officiating director, and there was nothing I could really do about it. You can’t fight City Hall.
Another blunder that was made back then was trying to rush a number of linesmen into making the transition to NHL referees. That didn’t work, either, except in one case. The rest of the guys needed more experience and weren’t ready for the switch. There were guys with lots of raw potential who couldn’t get the games they needed to master the craft (which was how my mentors made me into an NHL referee — they kept me working, working and working some more in various leagues). Ultimately, some guys lost their jobs and others went back to working the lines.
These are not real happy memories. However, they are the truth of my experience.
************ 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, while also maintaining 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.
Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.