THE BLOG
11/26/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Working Through Injuries a Way of Life for Officials, Too

Hockey players are renowned for their ability to play through injuries that would sideline athletes in most other sports. Sometimes discretion really ought to be the better part of valor, but that's rarely been the "hockey way" of doing things, especially back when I was playing and then officiating.

I can tell you from lots of personal experience that officials deal with more than their fair share of injuries, too, both of the acute and chronically nagging varieties. Just like most players, officials tend to be stoics and just keep on working through the injuries unless it is physically impossible to continue.

Part of the reason for the stoicism, incidentally, is driven by deeply hidden fear. There's a fear that if you take time off to heal an injury, you might never get back out there on the ice. That is true both for officials and for role-playing hockey players who are on the bubble of staying with the team or being cut and can ill-afford to miss time.

I lived that life through both perspectives. It's not fun, but it is reality. It can be tough to make your living in a highly competitive, often cutthroat business. I say this as someone who is dedicated to making the game as safe as possible for its participants and who tries to impress upon players, coaches, officials and administrators the need to prioritize safety and follow rules that are created to reduce injury risks.

For myself and for many others, competitive drive and love for the game trumps the pain. I have always had a high pain threshold, anyway, but nowadays my body reminds me of the damage I sustained over the years. As the song goes, my hips don't lie, nor do my knees, my hands or my low back; praise the Lord and pass the Advil.

You have to have a sense of humor about it, and hockey is filled with gallows humor about injuries. I may not have finished with nearly the highest GPA in my University of Pennsylvania graduating class but I definitely ranked at the very top in teeth lost in our various post-collegiate lines of work.

Between my playing and officiating careers, I sustained a litany of injuries: concussions, broken ankle, broken ribs, groin pulls, broken nose, broken fingers, teeth knocked out, a degenerative hip condition. I could go on.

Let's talk about concussions. They are brain injuries and are something that the sports world -- including hockey -- has only recently started to take seriously. We are still learning about the cumulative effects of multiple concussions, and I would not wish Post-Concussion Syndrome on anyone.

Between my professional playing and officiating careers, I sustained 27 concussions (that I know of). Many of them came in a refereeing capacity. I didn't wear a helmet when I refereed -- a matter of personal choice to me or maybe because I didn't have the nerve to be the trailblazer, but I'll confess it wasn't very prudent -- and that no doubt contributed to some of the injuries. No official wore a bucket until Andy Van Hellemond put one on because he was getting paid to do it. That opened the flood gates. Before that, it was the Cherry Syndrome. We didn't want to be labeled wussies.

I've been concussed after falling and hitting my head on the ice. I've been concussed when my head hit the glass above the boards. I've been accidentally(?) elbowed. I viewed it as just part of the game, because I was hardly alone.

Nowadays, I take concussions much more seriously. Concussions have become the bane of the game's existence. Speaking strictly as a father, I know that I worry about the on-ice safety of my two sons.

During my career, I broke my ankle three times. I never told anyone. On the QT, I had a trainer tape it and went out on the ice as per normal. With one of the injuries, the pain started to be unbearable. I finally got an x-ray and sure enough, there was a fracture.

For the next month, I had to get a pain-killing injection before every game. One night, for whatever reason, the injection wouldn't take. I got additional injections at the first and second intermissions. No one on the ice was any the wiser for it.

In the early 1990s, I worked a game in Quebec City. My wife was with me, and we were supposed to go back to Boston together the next day. My boss, Bryan Lewis, found out and switched my schedule so that she had to go back by herself and I had to work the following night in Winnipeg (an inconvenient trek, but you go where you're told to go).

During the course of the game in Quebec, defenseman Grant Ledyard fired an errant puck that struck me in the ribcage. The pain was excruciating and the breath rushed right out of me. I immediately knew I'd sustained broken ribs.

Although everyone in the arena and the player -- who was apologetic about the accident -- had seen what happened, Lewis hassled me. He openly accused me of faking the injury because I wanted to go home with my wife instead of going to Winnipeg.

Years later, I was working a game in Phoenix. Jose Theodore was in goal and was having a good game, forcing the shooters to try to pick corners. On one play, I moved behind the net and an errant puck hit me in the face. I sustained a broken nose.

Keith Tkachuk, a rambunctious power forward from Melrose, Mass., skated over to check on me.

"Are you OK, Stewy?" he asked.

"I'm all right," I replied.

"Are you gonna stay in the game?"

"Of course," I said. "Know why? Someone needs to keep an eye on you out there. I can't trust you."

He smiled.

********

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 HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.