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Thirty eight years ago tomorrow, I fulfilled a dream. I played my first NHL game. It didn’t matter to me that it was only a preseason game. It didn’t matter to me at the time that I only skated 81 seconds worth of ice time before getting a fight and receiving a match penalty.
Later, I looked back at it with some regret.
Back then, all that mattered to me was that I got to wear an NHL uniform. What’s more, I made my debut as a New York Ranger at Madison Square Garden, the most famous and storied arena in the world. To top it all off, the game was against the archrival three-time Stanley Cup finalist and two-time champion Philadelphia Flyers, and I know most of the guys on their side from my days as a student-athlete sharing the rink at University of the Pennsylvania.
It may have been just another exhibition game to most everyone else. To me, Sept. 27, 1976 was one of the greatest nights of my life up to that point. Although things have topped it since then, it was still a special night to me.
In the summer of 1976, I received a training camp invite from the Rangers. It was a stressful time but I felt on top of the world. The Rangers paid all my expenses to come to camp in Point-Claire, Quebec: gas, tolls, and hockey fees.
What was training camp like back then? If you have not read Brad Marsh’s blog on training camps of yesteryear, do yourself a favor and check it out. Marshy is absolutely right that the term “training camp battles” back then had much more literal meaning than the ones of today. Unless you were one of the lucky few with a roster spot set in stone, every single day at camp was a fight for survival.
At the Rangers’ rookie camp, I fought almost every player there because I knew it was my only shot at making the Rangers’ NHL team. Among others, Nick Fotiu, Dave Farrish, Mike McEwen, Don Murdoch, Danny Newman, and Nick Fotiu all were at camp with me.
Earlier this year, I had a chance meeting with Fotiu as we walked past each other in Manhattan. Seeing Nick reminded me of our first respective first NHL training camp in ’76. Knowing that my only shot at cracking the club was in an enforcer role, I had to find out more about my competition. Nick was my primary competition.
Upon my arrival, I asked who was the toughest player at the camp. I was told it was Fotiu. Nick was not totally unknown to me, although we had not yet crossed paths on the ice.
The Staten Island native had taken a somewhat similar path to mine to even achieve NHL consideration. Like me, Fotiu started out in the lowly NAHL and worked his way up to the WHA and, later the NHL. Nick still briefly played for the Cape Codders in 1975-76, when the team folded mid-season and was coached at the start of the season by Larry Kish (who was my first pro hockey coach with the NAHL’s Binghamton Dusters later that same same season).
Also like me, Fotiu had trained in other fighting forms in an era where few hockey tough guys had fighting experience outside of the ice and perhaps some schoolyard or barroom scraps. Nick had been the Police Athletic League boxing champion and could really handle himself. He had good balance and was a huge player for that era at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. When he connected with a punch or body check, it hurt.
Wanting to find out a bit more about Nick firsthand, I asked the Rangers if I could room with him at training camp. They said yes.
When I met Nick for the first time, I came up and introduced myself as his roommate. We shook hands. Then I challenged him to fight right then and there in the hotel room. Later, we had two bouts on the ice. I am man enough to admit this: Nick beat me pretty soundly.
There was never any personal animosity between Fotiu and myself. We quickly became friends and still are to this day. At the camp, we were both hungry to prove ourselves and earn an NHL spot with the Rangers. He got the gig and he went on to prove that he deserved it. That’s how it goes in hockey.
Forbes Kennedy, who played center in the NHL during the 1950s and ’60s, was one of our coaches at rookie camp. Kennedy was extremely friendly, loved puffing on cigars, and maintained a tough-guy persona. By the way, Forbes was also petrified of mice.
Out to dinner one evening, I asked a waiter bring a platter to the table and open it in front of Kennedy. There on the platter, I had planted a rubber mouse. To everyone’s amusement, Kennedy yelled in terror, almost jumping out of his pants. Then he realized he’d been had.
Kennedy and the other coaches must’ve liked me for more than my practical jokes. I was invited to the main Rangers training camp in New York. During training camp, I roomed with Danny Newman, who later spent time in the NHL with the Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers.
I dressed in exhibition games against the Flyers and Islanders. The first one was at MSG against Philly. I spent hundreds of dollars for 10 tickets to the game. I invited my old coach from Groton School, my parents, brother, my then-wife and her family.
On game night, Danny and I rode the subway together to Madison Square Garden. Sitting across from each other, I saw white socks under his short dress pants.
“What are you, a farmer?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I ‘m a farmer, so what?” deadpanned the native of the decidedly urban Windsor, Ontario.
During warmups for the game, I said hello to Flyers trainer Frank Lewis and some of the players. Nearly all of the Flyers players knew me from my days at Penn. They all asked me how I was doing and wished me luck at winning a spot on the Rangers — so “we can kick your ass, too.” In turn, I wished them good luck with that.
In a previous blog, I mentioned how Bob “The Hound” Kelly influenced my career when I was a Penn student. During my senior year, it was Kelly who suggested I buy a copy of the Hockey News, find the worst team in the lowest professional league and ask for a tryout. That’s exactly what I did with the Binghamton Dusters of the NAHL. I worked my way up the ladder from there.
After the warmup, I found out my line was starting. I was on the ice for the national anthem and the opening puck drop by referee John McCauley (yes, the same John McCauley who later helped me become an NHL referee and for whom I later named my first son).
On my first shift, I fired a shot on net. Then I did battle with Kelly in the corner, knocking the Hound over with a clean body check. Flyers rookie hopeful Steve Short — who did not make the NHL roster in Philadelphia but later briefly played in the NHL with Los Angeles — made a beeline for me. I knew what he wanted and cast off my gloves.
Especially for the standards of the time, Short was a big guy at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. I handled him pretty well, though. I punched Short two or three times, dropping him to the ice, right in front of the Rangers net. I then reached for the back of his sweater and accidentally grabbed the back of his hair in an attempt to pull him up. That was a big mistake on my part.
After Short and I were separated, McCauley informed me that I was being kicked out of the game on a gross misconduct for the hair pull. Accidental or not, it was an automatic ejection under recently passed NHL rules (which were designed to combat a common tactic used by Dave “the Hammer” Schultz to intentionally grab a handful of hair with one hand and punch with the other, as he most infamously did to the Rangers’ Dale Rolfe in Game Seven of the 1974 Stanley Cup Semifinals).
The time of the penalty was 1:21 of the first period. As I exited, several of the Flyers players had some parting words for me. In response, I made a gesture at the their bench and yelled out a challenge, which got a rise out of the MSG crowd. In between the first and second periods, I was interviewed by play-by-play man Marv Albert. We talked about my Boston background, my family ties to the NHL and the Flyers.
After the game, I took my large contingent of family and friends to eat at Toots Shor’s restaurant and I paid the bar bill. It was an expensive but exciting night. Years later, though, I looked back at the match penalty with some regret and wonder. Might I have been able to show more if I hadn’t gotten myself kicked out of the game?
In all honesty, I probably would not have beaten out Nick Fotiu for an NHL roster spot regardless. Nick was not only a hometown kid, he was also a better player than I was. He went on to become a valuable role player for the Rangers and other clubs. He was a good checking role player in addition to being an excellent fighter. He went on to play 646 NHL games.
Shortly thereafter, I was optioned to the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks. When I learned I was about to be sent to the Southern Hockey League, I chose instead to return to Bingham. Subsequently, I received a tryout with the Edmonton Oilers for whom I (very briefly) played my first two games in the World Hockey Association.
************ 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.