Huffpost Sports
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Paul Stewart Headshot

Hecklers, Hooligans and the Striped-Shirted Maitre D

Posted: Updated:

As is the case with any human relationship, there are some players and coaches that officials get along with better than others. Likewise, these relationships can change for the better or for the worse over time.

As a referee, I generally enjoyed dealing with the players and, to a lesser extent, the coaches. Honestly, I often got my biggest kick out of dealing with hockey fans. As a matter of fact, I have developed some of my closest friendships with hockey fans who heckled me.

One time I was in Toronto and there was a man in the stands behind the bench sitting with a stunningly beautiful woman next to him. Throughout the game, he kept up with a running series of heckles aimed at me.

Finally, before the start of the third period, I went over to the glass.

"Hey, lady," I said, gesturing to the man with her. "Is THAT the only way you can get to a Leafs game? You know, I could get you better seats."

Everyone around them laughed. The guy simmered down.

After the game, he introduced himself and his wife to me, and congratulated me on one of the best comeback zingers he'd ever heard. He's since become a close friend of mine.

During my years as a referee, there were several occasions where irate fans sucker-punched me. One of the most memorable times happened when I was refereeing an AHL game in Moncton.

As the officials left the ice, a guy in the stands threw rubbish at me. I ignored him and started to walk past as he threw a grazing punch at me. I was not a happy man, as I'm sure you could imagine.

I flagged down a RCMP officer and told him what happened. I asked the officer not to arrest the guy but, instead, to bring him down to the officials' locker room. The RCMP agreed on the condition that I promise not to hit the guy. I gave him my word.

I retired to the locker room and waited. By the time the knock came on the door, I had my shirt off. At that point in my life, I still had the muscular upper body physique that helped me get to the NHL as a fighter.

The guy who had hit me was an older man. He brought his grandson down with him.

"Still want to fight me?" I said, making direct eye contact.

He gulped, standing face-to-face now with someone who had previously made his living fighting other professional hockey tough guys.

"No," he said. "Listen, I'm really sorry."

Next, we gave his grandson a game puck and each of the officials introduced ourselves by name. Now the guy really felt about two feet tall. We were all human to him now.

Sheepishly, the man thanked us for the puck for his grandson, apologized again and slinked away. The late, great Bruce Lee used to talk -- both in real life and in the movie Enter the Dragon -- about the "art of fighting without fighting."

In this instance, the man who threw rubbish and a punch was as thoroughly humiliated in front of his grandson as a human being could be: escorted down a hallway by a stern RCMP, made to realize he'd be thumped in a fair fight and then forced to humanize the people he'd just mistreated as we treated his grandson with kindness.

The guy came back to see us next game and periodically thereafter, by the way. Forgive and forget.

I will be the first person to admit that I have a pretty quick temper at times. But along with the quick temper, I'm also a quick thinker with an innate sense of humor. I suppose you can chalk that combination of traits up to my Irish bloodlines and my Bostonian upbringing.

Normal conversation and a dose of humor is often the best way to build rapport with others on the ice. There is a lot of tension and pressure in hockey and you don't want to break anyone's concentration but, at the same time, there's room for some levity.

When I was refereeing in the NHL and two players would go after each other all game, I would try to use banter as an early step in keeping control. For example, whenever five-foot, six-inch Theo Fleury was playing against six-foot, six-inch Kjell Samuelsson, the two of them used to go after each other all game long. They'd talk trash to each other and give each other little extra shots behind the play and after the whistle.

Sammy used to take pleasure in riling up Fleury's bantam temper and Theo was no stranger, anyway, to using his stick as an equalizer. For the hell of it, Samuelsson used to grab Fleury and spin him around as play swung out of the defensive zone. Fleury used to slash Samuelsson with a two-hander in return. They'd yap at each other.

Left unchecked, the battle would escalate through the game. Before things got out of hand, I stepped in. First, I would try to use humor to let both know that I was aware of what they were doing and as a warning to cut it out.

"Hey, Theo," I'd say. "I've got an extra stepladder at home if you REALLY wanna get in his face."

To Samuelsson, who used the maximum length stick and was a master at clutch-and-grab tactics with his almost comical reach, I'd say, "Sammy, you should wear number eight. You look like a giant octopus out there tonight."

If they didn't take the hint, I'd send both off on coincidental penalties and issue a final warning that any further nonsense would mean 10-minute misconducts.

"Guys, I'm like a maitre d' out here," I'd say. "I can seat you here [pointing to the team benches]. I can seat you there [pointing to the penalty box] or I can seat you back in the locker room. It's up to you."

Despite the fact that Fleury was a player that I had to keep an eye on during a game and he was a player who could blow a gasket with his temper, he was also someone who had a sense of humor. Conversely, there were players I just couldn't talk to on the ice.

Eric Lindros was a player I got off with on the wrong foot and we never developed a rapport because neither he nor I wanted one. It started out innocently enough.

I was working an afternoon Philadelphia-New Jersey game at the Spectrum; the back end of a home-and-home. The Devils won the previous game, 6-4, in a game refereed by Mark Faucette. The game got chippy late in the third period, with about 40 penalty minutes being handed out in the final five minutes, including roughing penalties to Lindros and Scott Stevens in the waning seconds of the game.

The start of the game at the Spectrum was delayed several minutes. I had to wait for the red light on the scorer's table to indicate that the broadcast had returned from a commercial and it was OK to drop the opening faceoff.

During the delay, I made small talk with several of the Devils and Flyers on the ice. I said hello to Mark Recchi and talked to Bernie Nicholls. I then tried to greet the 19-year-old rookie Lindros.

"Hey, Eric. How are things going? How's your dad?" I asked.

The response: "[Bleep] you. Just drop the [bleeping] puck already."

Lindros was apparently in a bad mood because he'd recently missed 12 games with a knee injury, the team was in a losing skid, and he'd had a tough game in New Jersey. This game was also played about a week after Lindros had to go to court in Toronto after the Koo Koo Bananas incident. You know what? Those were his problems, not mine. But we were about to have a mutual problem.

Right off the opening faceoff, Lindros bulled forward and drilled Nicholls under the chin with his stick. I ditched Lindros on a high-sticking penalty.

Before the game, I had brought a tube filled with posters to Flyers' equipment manager Jim "Turk" Evers. The posters, which depicted Recchi and Lindros, were to be autographed and then donated to a charity auction. I had done a similar thing in other cities, such as a Cam Neely and Ray Bourque poster in Boston, and a Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh.

After the game, I want to Turk to collect the poster tube.

"Stewy, you're not going to like this," Evers said. "I don't have them."

"What do you mean you don't have them?" I asked.

"Well, Rex signed the posters but when Eric found out they were for you, he tore every one of them up. I'm sorry about that."

I never spoke to Eric Lindros again.

One year, much later in his career when he was with the Rangers, I ended up getting him on eight minor penalties that season. I caught some heat for it from John Davidson on the Rangers' broadcasts, but the truth of the matter was this: I did NOT go out of my way to "invent" penalties on Lindros -- or any player -- but I wasn't going to give that guy a break on anything borderline that I might have let slide with a player who had gained acceptability with me.

With some players, on the other hand, a bad relationship can be fixed over time.

Ray Ferraro tells a story -- which is true -- that we did not get along for much of his career. He thought I talked too much and was a showboat. He would tell me so. I thought he was one of those sneaky dirty players on the ice, and I would tell him as much after I caught him on something. We went a long time where we dealt with one another as little as possible.

Finally, after Ferraro scored his career 400th goal late in his career, I figured I should be the one to take the high road. I sought him out and congratulated him.

Ray looked at me, surprised. Then he shook my hand and told me he appreciated it. We got along fine thereafter.

Shortly after my retirement from the NHL as an active referee, the Hockey News asked me to name the five biggest whiners I had to deal with on the ice. In descending order from one to five, the players were Chris Gratton, Tyson Nash, Craig Janney, Steve Yzerman and Keith Tkachuk. I'll share stories about the other players some other time but for now, I talk about Gratton.

If you ever looked at Chris Gratton's career, he was the type of player that in the era in which I played would have been branded as a pseudo tough guy. He was bold and brave when either playing at home and/or going up against someone much smaller or at the end of a long shift when Gratton had just hopped on the ice. On the road, he could often carry a carton of eggs in his sweater without breaking any.

Gratton also complained about pretty much every call that did not go his way. He'd give my linesmen grief if he sent in a play two feet offside and the play got whistled down. According to him, he was never guilty of a penalty; to the point that, even when he did have a legitimate beef, he'd already cried wolf too many times before.

In December of 1998, I was working a game in Buffalo between Gratton's Tampa Bay club and the Sabres. In the third period, there was a fight between Tampa Bay's Darcy Tucker and Buffalo's Vaclav Varada. In an effort to get Gratton to stop hovering nearby and move off to the periphery to let the fight run its course, I nudged him aside.

Gratton yelled at me, claiming I shoved him forcefully. As we argued, he spit on me. As a result, Mr. Gratton earned himself a three-game unpaid vacation from the NHL, losing a nice hunk of money (or as Casey Stengel allegedly once said after getting suspended for spitting on an umpire, "I got more than I expectorated.")

I'll close this series of anecdotes with a story from my own playing days. One time when I was playing in the WHA for Cincinnati, I kept challenging a guy on the other team and he kept skating away.

Referee Bill Friday said to me, "Stop acting like an idiot, Paul, or I'm going to ditch you."

I skated to the bench right away and said to my teammates, "Hey, did you hear what Friday just said? He called me an idiot."

Cincinnati head coach Floyd Smith wasn't exactly sympathetic.

"He's right," Smith said. "Stop acting like an idiot.'"

********

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.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.

From Our Partners