One of my former bosses in the National Hockey League was openly disdainful of the importance of linesmen relative to referees.
He used to say, “I could find linesmen on a street corner and no one would know the difference.”
He was clueless. Good linesmen are absolutely critical to the success of an officiating team, and can set the referee up to look good.
The linesmen are crucial to the flow of play. While folks gripe about some offside calls and icing rulings, the fact is that they usually get the lion’s share of blink-of-the-eye plays correct. They physically break up the fights between some big, angry combatants. There are linemen who are incredible athletes, tremendous skaters and physically stronger than many players.
As a referee, linesmen are your teammates. I viewed us as all as brothers in arms, surrounded on hostile turf on all sides.
On a personal level, I have made more enduring friendships with linesmen I’ve worked with over the years than with fellow referees. I hate to start listing names because I might inadvertently omit a few people whom I cherish. So please do not consider this list to be comprehensive.
Guys like Dan Schachte, Pat Dapuzzo, Brian Murphy and Mark Pare are like family to me. I remain close with Mike Cvik. Among others, I owe debts of gratitude to Leon Stickle, Gerard Gauthier, Ray Scapinello, Kevin Collins, Randy Mitton, the late John D’Amico and a minor league linesman by the name of Romeo LeBlanc. Kevin Collins’ brother Brian was another one who assisted me early in my officiating career. Kevin was one of the best I’ve ever worked with, and belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Danny Murphy helped me out in Rochester.
When I was first starting out as a referee in the NHL, one of the ways that I knew I’d made it to stay was that I earned the respect of legendary NHL linesman Bob Hodges. A simple post-game handshake from him was one of the most meaningful gestures of my early refereeing career.
Hodges worked the NHL lines for a quarter of a century, officiating 1,701 regular season games, 147 playoff games, and three Stanley Cup Finals between 1972 and 1997. He was hockey smart, tough and exactly the type of teammate whom a ref wanted in the foxhole with him when things got heated and rough on the ice.
When I first started trying the making the transition from pro player to pro referee, Hodges had already had a decade of NHL officiating experience under his belt. He was skeptical of me and whether I deserved to wear the striped shirt in the NHL. In hindsight, I can’t blame him.
I am a sensitive person by nature and I cannot help but notice how people treat me. Bob was never rude or condescending to me, even at my first NHL officiating training camp in 1983, but he kept aloof from me. Years later, I understood why: I needed to earn my keep.
A few years later, in my rookie year after I got called up to the NHL, we worked a game together in Buffalo. As many of you know, the Aud had smaller-than-regulation dimensions, which added to the challenge of officiating in that building.
There was a play where a player jumped over the boards, took off skating and accidentally steamrolled Hodgy, knocking him off the blueline and flat on the ice. The rush went offside but, with all the commotion, play continued just long enough for a would-be goal to be scored.
I blew the whistle and disallowed the goal. Then I skated to Bob, and helped him up from the ice. The players demanded to know why I disallowed the goal. I simply said the rush went offside. I pointed to the dot and didn’t say another word. Play resumed.
After the game, Hodges came over and shook my hand. A machinist before embarking on his officiating career, Hodgy was missing part of one finger. Nevertheless, I could feel the strength of his handshake grip.
That was his way of saying, “You’re going to just fine, rookie. You’ve got guts.”
Thereafter, we got along very, very well. He treated me as an equal and I found him to be a very nice man as a human being in addition to being one hell of a good linesman.
With New Year’s Eve just around the corner, I will save one of my favorite linesman-centered stories until my final blog of the calendar year. For now, here are two others that still make me chuckle when I think about it.
There was once a night where I impersonated Gary Bettman over the phone, accent and all. My linesman buddy Brian Murphy and I wanted to grab dinner one night after a game in Long Island at Peter Lugers Steakhouse in Brooklyn. Players, coaches and fellow officials raved about the place to us.
I called and asked for a reservation after the game.
“Sorry, we are booked up solid for the next week,” said the voice on other end. “We can fit you in for a 10 o’clock a week from Thursday.”
That wasn’t going to do us any good. I was nothing if not persistent. A few minutes later, I called back.
“Hello, this is National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman,” I said, impersonating Gary’s voice to the best of my ability. “I need a table tonight for myself, my best referee Paul Stewart and two of my linesmen. We will be there 90 minutes after the game tonight.”
“Absolutely, Mr. Bettman,” they said. “See you tonight.”
The steak was delicious. Too bad Mr. Bettman had a last-second change of plans.
Another fun time in and around the Big Apple was a night I spent walking around with Mike Cvik. Mike hails from Alberta. Early in my officiating career, he drove me around western Canada.
When he came to the eastern U.S. for the first time, I thought it was only right if I took him around New York City. I told him we’d go all around the city — a bit by public transit to cover long distances but mostly by walking around in various areas.
I was wearing a trench coat in the somewhat chilled weather as we walked down 42nd Street. Now, this was back before 42nd Street was revitalized. These were the days when the locale was truly something like what was depicted in Taxi Driver. Mike had never seen anything quite like it.
As we are passing along, this shady character says hello to me. He was obviously a dealer and was probably pimping as well.
“Hey, how ya been?” he says.
“Not too bad,” I said. “How’s business?”
“Aw, real good, real good,” he said.
As we walked on, Mike turned to me with a disbelieving look on his face.
“Do you really know that guy?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But he thinks we’re cops.”
No one else disturbed us as we walked onward. As someone did police work for a while after my playing days and who also understands the interactions between hockey officials and those we patrol on the ice, I will tell you that the two realms really aren’t all that different.
Here’s another one about Mike, as well as Brad Lazarowich. We had an off-day after working in Quebec, and were staying at the Sheraton. There was an all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet for $9.50 (the soda wasn’t included) right behind the Sheraton Hotel. The infamous Cabaret Les Amazones was also right near by.
“I’m hungry,” Brad said. “Let’s go to the Chinese buffet.”
“Sounds good to me. You up for it, Stewy?” Mike asked.
I went along. Have you ever seen that TV commercial from a few years ago where a 400-pound sumo wrestler singlehandedly puts an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant out of business by eating their entire supply of fish and rice? Well, the first time I saw that commercial, I had deja vu.
Mike and Brad attacked several bowls of soup, and then ate — without exaggeration — 300 chicken wings between them. Then, after a brief respite about an hour into the meal, it was time for egg rolls and entrees.
With no sign of the $9.50 feast ending any time soon, the owner started to get perturbed. He approached the table, glaring.
“Here’s your money! You go! Don’t come back!” he yelled.
To this day, I think Mike and Brad’s pictures might still be posted there so they’ll never be allowed to eat at the joint again. Oh, and by the way, they were — and still are — both outstanding linesmen whom I was proud to call friends as well as teammates.
Maybe my old boss was fortunate enough to be able to find such people on a random street corner. As for myself, I find them rare and extraordinary.
********* 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.