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My father, Bill Stewart Jr., was a kind and compassionate man but he also knew how to take the starch out of disrespectful people. I will never forget how, one time one time after he refereed a game, he had the perfect retort to a leather-lunged heckler who screamed at him as he exited the rink.
“Thank you,” my father said to the guy.
“Why are YOU thanking me?”
“Now that the game is over, I’m going to go out and enjoy a steak and a beer. You paid for it, so thank you,” he said. “Oh, and I’ll be back here next Friday night.”
The loudmouth had been put in his place. Several people standing around the loudmouth laughed — so that’s something else that came at that guy’s expense. The guy had been so obnoxious that he turned off every one around him, too.
For the most part, I truly enjoyed the fans when I played and officiated. But that was something for after the game. During the game — and I hate to break this to folks who thought I was paying attention to them in the stands — I was so intensely focused on my job that the Rockettes could have done a kick line around the building and I wouldn’t have known. Christie Brinkley could have been sitting in the stands holding up a sign that said “Stewy, please call me” and I’d have been unaware.
After games was a different story. I am someone who has always enjoyed socializing and bantering with people. Even during the occasional stoppage of play, there was sometimes an opportunity to take a deep breath, relax my mind for a minute by kibbitzing with someone and then get back into “game mode.”
There have only been a few times where spectators crossed the line with me to the point where they provoked genuine anger on my part. But there were a few times where people messed with one of my officiating teammates to the point that my protective instincts — the same well of emotion from which I drew as an enforcer sticking up for teammates during my playing days — kicked up.
Actually, on the final night of my first NHL training camp, I came damn close to getting into a bar fight in a situation that did not initially involve myself.
All of the officials at the camp went out after the final day of camp. I sat at the bar, deep in conversation with a guy named William “Dutch” Van Deelan; a referee supervisor who lived in Western Canada. He was an older gentleman who had reffed in the Western Pro Hockey league.
Dutch had played some pro hockey himself in the Western Canada Hockey League for the Regina Kings during the 1940s. He was a little guy (maybe 5-foot-7) but tough as nails on the ice. Off the ice, he was a caring man. We became good friends, and he treated me like a surrogate son.
Suddenly, there was a ruckus nearby. A drunken idiot at the bar was trying to provoke a fight with Don Koharski. He deliberately bumped Koho and then pushed him.
I didn’t doubt Koharski could handle himself against this guy — and Don was just about ready to fight him. But there was no reason why Don should have to do.
I excused myself from Dutch, stepped in and grabbed the guy by the collar.
“You want to fight? Fight me,” I said.
“Who the [blee are you?” the guy sneered.
Making direct eye contact, I said, “I’m the guy who will kick your ass. One move and I will shove this beer bottle down your throat.”
The guy hesitated for just a moment, seeing that I wasn’t bluffing or backing down. He also felt the glare of everyone’s eyes on him. That gave the bouncers enough time to grab the guy and escort him out of the bar.
“That was pretty good,” Dutch told me when I returned.
“Koharski doesn’t need any crap from a guy like that,” I said. “I do this for a living.”
“Well, you can’t do that anymore,” Dutch said. “You’re a referee now. You fit here like a glove. You’re going to be all right.”
That incident was probably the first time I realized I’d TRULY crossed over to the other side. I was now one of officials and no longer a player. At my core, however, I simply needed (and will to the day I die) to be involved in the game in some capacity. Have skates, will travel.
Sometimes, I did things on the ice as an official that people who didn’t know me — which included my later bosses in the NHL after the death of John McCauley — mistook for attention-seeking and even deliberate showboating. What people didn’t understand is that I was usually deep within my own head at such moments.
For example, as a young referee, I reffed Game 2 of the 1987 Canada Cup Final between Russia and Canada. You should have seen me before that game. Pacing around the officials’ room like a caged tiger at the zoo, I looked at the two linesmen.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I can’t sit in here anymore.”
“There’s still 7 minutes to go during warmups,” said linesman John D’Amico.
“I don’t care,” I said. “Let’s go take a skate.”
I couldn’t just sit still in the dressing room. I needed to get out there, get the feel of the ice and get comfortable. The feeling of being cooped up was unbearable.
As long as I have access to a rink, things are OK in my world. It’s my job but my wife says “You call that work?” because she knows I’d be doing it anyway. It’s not about attention or money, but I have eaten well because of the fine folks who pay to see the games.
My life credo has always been, “Just keep me skating.”
My father understood.
************ 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 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.