Tricks of the Assignor Trade


Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

When I retired as an active NHL official and later moved on be a director of officiating in other leagues, I put the benefit of my own experiences to use in my dealings with the officials I oversee. One thing I would never do is to use assignments in a punitive way. That is not good for the game or for establishing oneself as a trustworthy authority figure.

Unfortunately, not all officiating directors and assignors see it that way. During my NHL career, there were many agenda-driven game assignments given and withheld.

I am NOT talking here about the sort of methods John McCauley used when he was breaking me in as official. There is more to this profession than just the physical skills and knowledge of the rules. It also takes a supreme level of dedication and mental toughness that can only be honed through experience.

For my own good, John kept me working and working. I worked games at every possible level of hockey. I traveled wherever he wanted me to go, traversing North America.

One year in the NHL training program, I worked 37 games in 39 nights in 4 different Leagues and a total of 144 games all across the U.S. and Canada.

McCauley once said to me, “I am going to make you a referee or kill you with the grind. We’ll see if you can take it.”

This is a legitimate and highly effective method of training an official. I had the right frame of mind and attitude to make it to the NHL. No game was “beneath” me. Every assignment was a valuable learning experience that brought me one step closer to my goal of “graduating” to the status of a full-time NHL referee.

As an administrator, if you get assignments from me, it’s because I think you can do the job. The rest is up to you. You can also trust that I would not use assignments as a hidden agenda for “driving out” people to get them to quit.

I went through that as an NHL referee after John’s death, as did other colleagues who were not favorites of our new bosses. I was deliberately given agenda-driven assignments for which the ulterior motive was to get me to quit.

Here’s a prime example: In the early 1990s, I worked a game in Quebec City. My wife was with me on the trip, and we were supposed to go back to Boston together the next day. My boss found out and switched my schedule so that she had to go back by herself and I had to work the following night in Winnipeg,

That was a mighty inconvenient trek but, as an official, you go where you’re told to go. I went without complaint.

During the course of the next game in Winnipeg, defenseman Grant Ledyard fired an errant puck that struck me in the ribcage. The pain was excruciating and the breath rushed right out of me. I immediately knew I’d sustained broken ribs.

Everyone in the arena saw what happened. Ledyard himself was apologetic about the accident. That mattered not a whit to my boss. When informed of the injury, he accused me of faking it because I wanted instead to go home with my wife.

Yeah, that’s what I would call punitive assignment practices. Likewise, the people working over me used denial of certain assignments — and not just the playoffs — to remind me they held power over me.

It was not my custom to request specific assignments, but I truly coveted the privilege of refereeing the final game at the Boston Garden. It had immense personal meaning to me, and not just because I’m a Bostonian. I felt it was my birthright, more so than any other NHL referee.

First of all, my grandfather and father refereed countless games at the arena. That included my U.S. Hockey of Fame grandfather officiating one of the first NHL games in the history of the building. My father also officiated many, many college games there including championship games. I virtually grew up in the building.

Years late, I made my NHL playing debut at the Boston Garden as a member of the Quebec Nordiques. Then I made my NHL officiating debut at the Garden as an emergency in-game replacement for Dave Newell.

The NHL Director of Officiating scoffed at that history. Triumphantly and arrogantly, he informed me that he had someone research old box scores. My grandfather’s first game as a referee at the building was the third NHL game held at the Garden, not the first.

Then he told me there was no way I would get the assignment. He told me there were many more deserving officials for the honor. In response, I did something that went against my nature: I went over his head and appealed directly to the NHL Commissioner’s office.

I got the assignment. I also worsened my already shaky relationship with my direct bosses, but I didn’t care. I didn’t fight for that assignment for myself, I did it to honor my late grandfather and father. Also, I refused to let the people who wanted me gone break me. I retired in 2003 under my own terms because I realized I was no longer physically able to officiate to the standards I set for myself.

When I moved to overseeing, teaching and reviewing officials, I refused to play power struggle games with my people’s assignments. If I don’t have assignments for someone, it is never for personal reasons. I’ve had to break bad news to people I like more on a personal level than certain people who’ve gotten assigned.

Personal feelings, politics, nationality, race, color and creed have nothing to do with it. I owe that to the good of the game. If you can do the job, you get the assignment. Keep up the good work and your conditioning and you keep getting assigned.

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

Your sports. Your teams. The ISN Daily Digest.

Sign up to the ISN Daily Digest and sit back while we pick the previous day’s best headlines and speed them straight to your inbox every morning.
Email address
First Name*
We abide by all applicable emailing laws including 100% CAN-SPAM/CASL/US CAN-SPAM Act compliance. No spam!