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When I am not at the rink, I am a huge movie buff. I’ll let you in on a little habit of mine: I frequently watch movies when I sit down to do my work. I love the classics, war films, crime dramas, comedies, you name it. Over the course of my career in hockey, I’ve exhaustively watched every film I can get my hands on that have starred some of Hollywood’s greatest actors.

One of my favorite actors is the late Jimmy Stewart. No, it’s not because we share the same last name. It’s because the man was brilliant at his craft.

He had the ability to a play a staggering array of very different characters convincingly, and could work well in any genre. To this day, “It’s a Wonderful Life” in particular still brings a tear to my eye no matter how many times I’ve seen it. The inscribed sentence in the copy of Tom Sawyer that Clarence leaves for George — “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends” — is one of the truest and most inspirational things I have ever seen.

This morning in Russia, I sat down with a Jimmy Stewart movie, “Thunder Bay,” in the background as I started to prepare to do some work. In this movie, former World War II naval engineer Steve Martin (played by Stewart) embarks on a new civilian business venture in Lousiana. All the locals he meets are hostile to his engineering project for their own personal reasons and the only sympathetic person is his friend and right hand man Johnny Gambi (played by longtime character actor Dan Duryea, who was more often typecast as a villiain).

As I sat there, I pondered why those two Jimmy Stewart films have a particularly moving effect on me. It’s because they remind me of my own life and the people I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to call my friends. If not for them, I would not have made it as far or as long a I have in this game.

Some of the folks who are the most special to me are the linemen I worked with in the American Hockey League. Hockey people who’ve never been an official cannot relate to the life of a referee, nor can the vast majority of fans.

To put things simply, when you are a referee, your only real friends are your officiating teammates on the ice. No one else is glad to see you from the time you don your striped sweater until you’re ready to leave the building. They are your only comrades, and you are outnumbered on all sides on hostile turf. Everyone else has an agenda to win. As officials, your only agenda is call the game right and fairly.

It is from this shared experience that many of my closest friendships have been developed. Some of the linesmen from my AHL days later joined me in the NHL — for instance, my dear friend Pat Dapuzzo, whom I first got to know in New Haven — while many others did not. Back then, the linemen usually worked close to where they lived, so when I see an old photo of myself with a linesman, I can usually tell where and roughly when the photo was taken.

This is an extensive, but far from complete, list of the men I worked with on the ice in my formative years as an official: Philadelphia: the late Mike Condon (for whom an AHL award is named) and Jimmy Doyle.

Hershey: Rich Zerbe and Steve Horney.

Rochester and Binghamton: John Galipeau and Dan Murphy.

New Haven: Pat Dapuzzo.

Albany and Adirondack: Harry Ammian.

Springfield @ The Big E: oldtimers when I played Joe Faucette (Mark’s father) and Al “Junie” Fontana.

Springfield @ Big E and then Civic Center: Marty Demers, David Butova, Frank Quigley, and Bill Morrissey.

Providence, Maine and Boston: Brad Weeden, Bobby Paquette, Fred Campatelli, and Frank Cole.

Halifax, NS: Pat McCluskey, Al Stone, and Charlie Banfield.

Moncton: Romeo LeBlanc, Ricky Gaudette, Bernie DeGrace, Glenn White, and Magic Christian.

Each of every one of these people is cherished by me and is worthy of being singled out in a blog. Today, I want to give special recognition to Romeo LeBlanc.

Romeo was the godfather of officiating to an entire generation of officials and has remained a close friend throughout the years. Pretty much every official who made the NHL in my era owes a debt of gratitude to Romeo for the way he cared for us and nurtured us as young officials, whether it is myself, Dan Marouelli, Bill McCreary or a host of others. He helped break in many future NHL linesmen, too, including Bernie DeGrace. On the ice and especially off the ice, Romeo is a treasure.

Romeo was an official for 35 years, including 20 in the AHL. He got a late start in professional officiating, but always had an unbridled passion for the game and for the officiating craft. At age 31, he was working as a machinist in New Brunswick and officiating local games as an avocation. In 1978, he finally got his chance to become an AHL lineseman.

No one has ever pulled on the striped shirt with more pride than Romeo LeBlanc. Having broken into the professional ranks so late, however, he knew from day one that he had no shot at ever making the NHL. Instead, he dedicated himself to helping other, younger officials get to the top level.

Apart from being a great teammate on the ice, Romeo’s friendship, wisdom, support and guidance off the ice were invaluable. Romeo would often pick up fellow officials at the airport and drive them to his family’s home. He also drove us to games in Fredricton. It’s just the type of human being he is.

Many a time, Romeo and Sylvia had me over as a guest as their home in Dieppe, where we would share one of Sylvia’s excellent home-cooked meals and hours of conversation. His daughters Monique and Carole are also wonderful and caring people, and Carole in particular knows as much hockey as anyone I’ve ever met. The LeBlancs have always been gracious hosts, and Romeo even helped me work on my French.

I always looked forward to going to Moncton and seeing Romeo. His garage is like a hockey museum. In a previous blog, I talked about Romeo’s legendary puck collection. His garage is a hockey paradise.

It was Romeo who introduced me to the joys of “lobster hot dogs.” On many other occasions, we’d get together in Moncton for a bowl of seafood chowder — some of the best I’ve ever had in my life — and then retire to his garage to share a few beers and hours of laughter and conversation. Those were some of the happiest times of my life.

In Romeo’s garage, there is a picture of him doing a very special faceoff drop. It’s special because Wayne Gretzky is in the picture. It was taken on the night Edmonton played a game in Halifax.

Romeo never officiated a game in the NHL. However, he once had an opportunity when the league approached him during the official’s strike of 1993 to be a replacement linesman. He refused.

“That’s scab work,” Romeo explained, simply.

Now you have to understand something: Hockey is Romeo’s life and passion and his fondest dream would have been to work in the NHL. But he was a working man at heart and far too loyal to his friends to even entertain the idea of accepting such an offer under those circumstances.

In so doing, he passed up his chance to officiate in the NHL. The league should have done the right thing and let him work just one NHL game before he retired — something that every official in the NHL would have applauded, as would the players and coaches who knew him from the AHL — but the powers-that-be wouldn’t hear of it.

Ultimately, though, Romeo is a man true to his friends and his principles. Just like my own father, he has no regrets and owes no one a thing.

When I think of Romeo, I can’t help but smile. Above all, he’s a delightful man with a great sense of humor.

One time — this was long before the introduction of replay — I disallowed a home team goal over the judgement of the goal judge behind the net (remember those?). We really couldn’t trust a lot of those guys, because they tended to be a bit too hasty on the trigger finger in turning on the goal light.

“No goal! Didn’t cross the line,” I said to the home team bench in a quick fly-by, going right past Romeo, too, as I took a skate.

“Stewy, where are you going?” he said.

“If they can’t catch me, they can’t argue,” I explained.

Romeo laughed heartily.

Another indelible image of Romeo that sticks in my mind of is a pregame image a newspaper photographer took of him when he worked the lines in a charity alumni game. With a twinkle in his eye, Rome is seated atop an overturned net, popping a Timbits (the Canadian equivalent of a Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin for our Canada-impaired American readers) in his mouth.  photo f2034482-52e6-42fa-932c-29fe3603437a.png

On a more serious note, I owe a bigger piece of my refereeing career to Romeo than most people will ever know. I was nearly fired before I made it to the NHL as a referee and Romeo vouched for me and saved my job.

Having played in the NHL as a member of the Quebec Nordiques and understanding that that there were many francophones in the game, I always tried to practice speaking French when I was in the LeBlanc’s home. As he was in every way, Romeo was helpful to me in that regard.

Little did I know at the time that Romeo LeBlanc and those French conversations would one day end up getting me out of a heap of trouble.

During the 1985-86 season, I was working a game in Moncton between the New Brunswick Hawks and the Sherbrooke Canadiens. Romeo and Whitey were the linesmen. The latter official had a broken wrist and was wearing a soft cast during the game.

During the course of the game, a fight broke out between Sherbrooke’s Claude Lemieux and a Hawks player. As the fight reached what should have been its conclusion, the cast-wearing White had the impossible task of trying to wrestle the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Lemieux off his opponent.

Lemieux, shrugged off White, who got rolled over to the ice and pinned down in the pile, howling in pain. Instinctively, I stepped in.

“Arrête!” I shouted at Lemieux, who was bringing up his fist. “Ne faites pas ça!” (Stop! Don’t do that!”)

As classless of a player as I ever saw on the ice, Lemieux sneered, cursed at me and then kept punching. Now, as I said Lemieux was a big, strong guy. But I was pretty big and strong as well, with years of playing experience as an enforcer. Off the ice, I was also someone who had done police work, and had trained in the martial arts of aikido and karate.

With my own adrenaline pumping, I yanked Lemieux up, lifted him and physically dumped him into the penalty box. Lemieux and Sherbrooke coach Pierre Creamer screamed curses at me.

After the game, there was a knock at the officials door. It was Creamer.

“We’re going to get you!” he said, wagging a finger at me.

“Be my guest,” I said.

The Sherbrooke team filed a complaint about me. Apart from reporting that I had physically manhandled Lemieux (without telling the truthful context of what happened), they claimed that I had made ethnic slurs at Lemieux. I had to fly to Montreal for a meeting. In attendance were Brian O’Neill, Jim Gregory, John McCauley and Canadiens general manager Serge Savard.

In my defense, Romeo wrote an impassioned and moving affidavit. He told the truth about what happened with Lemieux and described in detail about how I was always welcomed to break bread in his home — where we spoke French. He said that he’d always known me to be someone for whom another person’s ethnic origin was never a topic for ridicule or insult.

Before the meeting time, Savard pulled me aside.

“Stewy, did you really say those things to Lemieux?” he asked.

“Serge, you know me,” I said. “Have you ever known me to make ethnic slurs?”

“No,” he said. “That’s why I’m asking.”

“OK, then,” I said. “Also, where did I play in the NHL?”

“Quebec,” he said.

“Right. Don’t you think that means a lot to me to this day?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Absolutely, it does,” I said. “Do you really think I’m bigoted against French-speaking players, Serge? Listen, who have I told you was probably my favorite player when I was growing up? Jean Beliveau, right?”

Savard nodded.

“Also a few months ago, didn’t I just personally recommend you to sign a player I’d seen in Boston, because I thought he was a good fit for your team’s needs?” I asked. “Would I do that for you if I had something against your team?”

Savard said no.

“Look, if you still doubt me, here’s an affidavit from Romeo LeBlanc,” I said.

“Romeo swears that you didn’t do it?” he asked.

“Read for yourself,” I said.

He read the affidavit over, nodding several times. Romeo’s word was good enough for Serge. A few minutes later, Savard walked into the room.

“Listen, fellas,” he said. “I think there’s just been a misunderstanding here. There’s no need to meet. Let’s get lunch.”

The next time I worked a Sherbrooke game, Romeo was at my side. Creamer, who didn’t want to let the previous incident go, unleashed invective me in French.

“Tell him what I think I of him,” said Creamer to LeBlanc.

Romeo turned to me and grinned. He knew I’d understood every word.

“How about YOU tell him?” Romeo said.

It was then that I got to use some of the French that I’d practiced in the LeBlanc home. The look on Creamer’s face was priceless!

We have shared many such times over the years. Sitting here in Moscow these many years later, I realize that truly no man is a failure who has friends like Romeo LeBlanc.

************ 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.