11/05/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Make Haste, Make Mistakes: Officiating in the NHL

One of the biggest mistakes any official can make is being too hasty to make a call. It can happen to anyone, including a veteran, but this is a learning experience that almost everyone goes through in his or her career: When you make haste, you make mistakes.

Once you put your arm in the air for everyone in the building to see, you can't put it back down again. Likewise, once you blow the whistle, there's no way to "reverse" the sound in order to let play continue.

Everyone who officiates goes through this experience. A good official learns from it. A mediocre one never figures out that there's a difference between hustle and haste. Hustle entails both physical and mental fitness, as well as an awareness of positioning and a feel for the flow of the game. The latter is a product of over-eagerness.

In the latter part of my active officiating career in the NHL, I helped break in a host of young officials. Many are still in the League today, and it is gratifying to see how most of them have developed over the years. However, just as not every player fulfills his potential, the same can also be said of officials.

For instance, there was one young official I worked with who had no clue about why he constantly ticked off not only the players and coaches but also his officiating partners. In his mind, he was giving his all. He didn't understand the difference between hustle and haste.

I once said, "You do everything at 100 miles-an-hour out there. Don't run around like a chicken with your head cut off. Take an extra moment when you need to. Trust your partners and communicate. You can skate at this level for sure but you need to use your brain, too."

I once got an earful about this official's lack of awareness and judgment from then-Tampa coach John Tortorella. I had to defend my teammate in front of the coach and the Lightning players but I settled Torts down by promising to talk to my young partner afterwards. Unfortunately, the message never sank in with my fellow ref.

All these years later, when I watch him work from afar, I am dismayed to see he is exactly the same on the ice as he was as a rookie. He still skates well but he still lacks both sound judgment and feel for the game.

In my own development as an official, it took years to learn how to channel my natural aggressiveness. I had the instincts but it took time to learn that making the right call sometimes means taking an extra moment to process what happened and then arrive at a judgment.

I've told this story before, but it illustrates the point: In my first game as official in the NHL, I disallowed a goal because I blew the whistle too quickly -- as soon as the puck exited my view. If I had taken just an extra moment, I'd have seen that Montreal goaltender Patrick Roy was unable to control the puck and Boston's Geoff Courtnall stashed it home a split second later. The would-be goal ended being a crucial one, too, and the game ended in a tie (remember those, hockey fans?).

After that incident, I promised myself that I would always take an extra moment when I needed it to skate to exactly the position I needed at the net to get the optimal view before blowing the whistle. That leads to my final point: People will usually forgive and forget the marginal hook you call or miss at center ice, but the too-hasty call at the net involving a would-be goal will be remembered.

As an official, it is important to constantly self-assess and self-critique: One question that should always be front and center is "Whether the call was right or wrong, did I give myself and my partners the best possible opportunity to make the right call the next time the same situation arises?"


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.

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