National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman is a controversial figure in many circles. That includes not only among fans and segments of the media, but also among some on the playing and officiating sides of the game.
What I will say in that regard is this: Whatever your opinions are on him, as a commissioner it is hard to deny that he is good at the job he was hired to do. Bettman has grown the revenue of the game while driving a hard bargain in negotiations, all the while doing the equivalent of herding cats in trying to keep team owners in line with his main objectives.
On a professional level, I respect Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly even if I don't always agree with some of their decisions. Specially, I take issue with the salutatory neglect they afford to those whom they selected to run the officiating and rule-making sides of the game. Those areas have incompetently and unscrupulously (mis)managed for years, and the commissioner is seemingly disinclined to do anything to bring about badly needed constructive changes.
I will discuss some of those issues in my blogs over the summer. Today, however, I prefer to focus on on another side of the story: Gary Bettman the human being. I know that he often gets demonized by people outside hockey and by some players but I believe in my heart that you should judge a person by how he or she treats you, and not by what others say about that person.
Back in 1998, the NHL participated in the Olympics for the first time. During the League's schedule break, I was at home early one morning watching the Today show with my wife, who was nine months pregnant with our first child. Show host Katie Couric was talking about how she had lost her husband to colon cancer.
As part of the story, she mentioned various symptoms. As she listed the warning signs, I realized that most -- but not all -- were things I had been experiencing. My wife prodded me to go to a doctor and get checked, so I did.
On Feb. 22, 1998 at 11 p.m., my son McCauley John Stewart was born. It was far and away the happiest day of my life up until that point.
The next morning at 9:30 a.m., I had an appointment with my doctor and was informed that I had Stage 3 colon cancer. There was a large malignant tumor and a secondary tumor at my liver.
The doctor told me that had I waited even another few weeks to get checked, the chances of my survival would have been virtually zero. As it was, I would face surgery and chemotherapy, with a significant possibility that I would not make it five years, if that.
I am not going to make any cliched analogies to this fight being tougher than anything I experienced on the ice as a player or referee. In those instances, there was always a choice involved. Here, there was no other choice. It wasn't a game. I had to fight the cancer to be alive for my baby boy and for my wife. That was the one thing I focused on at the times I felt too sick to lift my head off the pillow.
Giving up meant death. It meant my family grieving and my son not having a father. Plain and simple, those were non-options to me.
On June 10, 1998, I underwent surgery to remove the tumors. I hemorrhaged heavily, losing three pints of blood, and went back in on June 12. The situation was grave and I was given last rites.
All I could think about the whole time was my three-month-old son and my wife. I couldn't leave them like this. Through the grace of God, I pulled through the surgery and the aftermath. However, the following year, I had to be hospitalized again. I had developed seven hernias from the incisions, which took multiple procedures to correct.
When I was very sick and no one was sure how long -- or if -- I would live, Gary Bettman treated me with incredible kindness. He didn't do it for the sake of publicity. There was no personal gain it in for him. He did it from a warm heart that beats beneath the exterior of what people in public or from the other side of a negotiating table get to see.
Gary was one of the first people to call me during my ordeal. He told me that, no matter what happened, he would personally make sure that my family was taken care of. He told me not to hesitate to ask if there was anything I needed. I never saw a single bill for my cancer treatments, because the commissioner personally made sure every cent of it was paid by the League.
Mr. Bettman is a man to whom I will be forever grateful, whatever my differences with the League about certain rules and the handling of aspects of officiating. It meant a lot to me that he was in attendance at the game in New Jersey on Nov. 13, 1999, when I made my NHL refereeing return.
Being able to resume my refereeing career from 1999 to 2003 and officiating my 1,000th career game in my hometown of Boston were things that I often did not think would be possible during the worst stretch of dealing with cancer. I felt blessed just to be alive for my family. To make it back to the NHL was another blessing.
I never forget the people who have treated my kindly, just as I have a long memory for those who mistreated me and others about whom I care deeply. In your lowest and most vulnerable times, that's when you learn a lot about the character of those around you.
Gary Bettman is a good man.
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.