Grit and Character Still Matter


There has been a disturbing trend around hockey — and society — the last few years to discount the importance of intangibles such as leadership, grit, work ethic and character. These qualities don’t fit on a Corsi/Fenwick chart so, therefore, the valuation must be low and easily replaceable. It’s far more important to judge hockey players’ worth to their teams based on a glorified plus-minus of shot attempts, right?

Yeah, yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

An even more disturbing but laughable trend: Keyboard warriors, especially young bloggers, dismissing hockey PROFESSIONALS with comments like “this guy is not good at hockey.” These are the same folks who get pouty when those of those who have, you know, made a living in this sport try to break the news that their boutique stats give a very limited picture of what actually goes on out there on the ice.

Grit and character still matter in hockey. So does persistence.

Throughout my life, I’ve drawn tremendous inspiration from the words of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in his famous Citizenship in a Republic speech written and delivered in 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I hope for all those wannabees out there who trample on everyone’s dreams, digest this heartily: It’s all about never quitting, hanging in there and going until the bell rings, crossing the finish line and scoring that goal.

Why does grit matter in hockey? I’ve seen countless skill players who look good in practice and maybe even stand out in the preseason or in loosely defended games. When the mucking starts, they fade faster than a sun tan in February.

For all you wannabe coaches that think you are the next coming of Herb Brooks, stop trampling on kids ‘dreams, projecting your negativity, not helping your player develop, and simply telling them “you aren’t good enough.” That goes, too, for the armchair scouts and GMs out there as well as the real-life ones who don’t understand that some seeds take longer than others to grow.

Michael Jordan — arguably the greatest basketball player ever to lace up a pair of hightops — was cut from his high school basketball varsity team as a sophomore, and was placed instead on the junior varsity team. It took Pete Rose a year in a post high-school amateur league in Cincinnati to get a professional baseball contract. Larry Bowa tried out for his high school baseball team four times and got cut all four years, but went to have a 45-year-old playing and coaching career in Major League Baseball including five All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves and, later, a Manager of the Year Award.

In hockey, there are many, many such stories. Terry O’Reilly was told he wasn’t good enough to play professionally. Bobby Clarke was bypassed by every team in the NHL in the first round of the 1969 Draft — skipped twice by some teams — solely because he had diabetes and teams thought there’s no way someone with the disease could play NHL hockey. Theoren Fleury had a rough childhood, was severely undersized and ignored in the NHL Draft until the eighth round in 1987. Meanwhile, many undrafted players, like Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli, future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis and prolific-scoring 1980s power forward Tim Kerr was written off by many in their early years.

Of course, that is my own life story as well.

I was told I wasn’t college or pro hockey material as a player. When I played at Penn and the lower-minor league level, I was told I had no shot at the WHA or especially the NHL. I was told I was a hopeless case when trying to make the transition from player to referee. I was told by some I couldn’t make it to the NHL as a referee and then, post 1989, my bosses tried to bully me into quitting and told me I was the worst official in the league. I was told my chances of survival from stage three colon cancer were less than 50-50. I was told it was probably going to be too difficult to return to officiating in the NHL.

After my active officiating days were over, I was told that I had no future in training and managing officials. I was told I’d be the latest quick casualty in what had been a revolving door of ECAC officiating directors. I was told there was no way people in the KHL would accept a non-Russian to work with their officials.

Well, here I am. I’ve been a hockey professional in various capacities for 40 years. I will share my “secret” with you: There is no substitute for hard work and persistence.

The naysayers will retort, “Well, everyone works hard.”

They are wrong. It’s not JUST hard work, it’s hard work coupled with HONEST thinking about what you need to work on and then the willingness to keep at it even if the results take time.You need character and integrity. Work ethic and character matter more than raw talent for the game.

For all you kids trying out for a hockey team, please remember this: If you get cut or projected to not be a “star” player — take it from me — the graveyards are full of guys with star potential that couldn’t handle the traffic in the corners, the competition when it was for real or the pressure day after day.

At its root, hockey is about four things: skating, passing, shooting and checking.

Break down each part and work on a skill in each part of the game that you can’t do well until it’s a part of the game that you do very well. At that point, you will have the last and best thing you need to make it: SELF CONFIDENCE.

Trust me, i’s something I never lacked. If I achieved my goals, so can you. Let the work begin to take you to your dream. Be a doer of deeds.

********* 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.