Podcast -

Interview with Former NHL Referee Paul Stewart

We had the great opportunity to interview former NHL referee, Paul Stewart, on the Team Stripes Podcast. Paul is a highly decorated referee, having worked more than 1,000 regular season games along with two Canada Cup appearances and two All Star Games. We talk about his career, how the game has changed, what he looks for in aspiring referees, and much more. 


Interview with Paul Stewart

Note: Wording is not exact. Certain parts are paraphrased. 

Brandon Bourgeois: Thank you for for helping us out and chatting. In your career you’ve officiated over 1,000 NHL regular season games, 49 playoff games, and have the Canada Cup in 1987 and 1991, along with two All Star games. Could you fill us in on some of the special experiences and memories for you as an NHL referee?

Paul Stewart: You mentioned the 1987 Canada Cup – I had game two of that series. All the games in that series had scores of 6-5. My game went to double overtime and I disallowed two Russian goals, and I put Canada down two men in the first. Allen Eagleson accused me of not helping Canada – which I didn’t know was part of my job. I thought I was there to referee. On the Russian side you had players like Kaminski and Larionov, and on the Canadian side Gretzky and Lemieux had nights people dream about. Of course that night Gretzky had five assists and Lemieux had a hat-trick and Grant Fuhr played out of his mind.

Another game which game stands out would be my first game in the NHL, which was not a game I was assigned to. I was assigned to observe Montreal and Boston, with John McCauley, during the last week of the regular season with the Canadiens and the Bruins fighting over second place. Well I went in to replace the injured Dave Newell in the second period. I was on the ice for 30 seconds and disallowed a Bruins goal. I might have been a little bit quick on the whistle. Well I still have to do about 30 more minutes that game, and afterwards John McCauley, the late, great director of officiating, said to me that I didn’t fail him. I refereed the game and went about my business and had enough guts to make the tough calls and live with them and move along.

Additionally,  certainly the comeback game I had on November 13th in 1998 when I came back from my stage three colon cancer, when I had been told that I wasn’t going to live 6 months was memorable. I was able to able to survive and make my comeback in Jersey with the Penguins playing, and I remember Jagr came out and gave me a hug. I’ll never forget that night and how terrific it was just to be able to be back skating. A lot of people don’t know that I was doing those games and I was taking a daily dose of chemo both in the morning and at night. Chemo is pretty tough and can be debilitating. But I think there’s a toughness that allowed me to be up for the challenge.

BB:  How did that experience change your perspective? Did it change you as a referee at all? What were some of the challenges that you faced with it?

PS: Well the physical challenge was just keeping my meals down and not being so fatigued and dehydrated, and all of the things that happened because of that disease. Sometimes it felt as though the cure was worse than the illness.

I think because of the medicine and the surgery and my physical conditioning at the time, I was able to fight off the disease and the effects of the chemo. And the chemo was I think the only thing that gave me a chance to survive.

BB: I think a lot of listeners out there, especially young referees,a lot of games they work they might not think that there are allies for them out there but I wonder if you could talk about the family aspect of the game hockey.

PS: Well you’re absolutely right, there is a family aspect to it and a lot of people don’t understand that that even in the best of times, as families we do argue and we do have moments where we learn we don’t get along so well. But as I’ve explained to a lot of people we who are in hockey understand that friction is part of the game and we love the friction. We confront each other and then afterwards we let it go, and it’s done. But as fierce as the competition and as fierce as the friction is – so too is how great the loyalty is amongst hockey people. For example, even though I may have called a bad penalty against the Bruins when I came back to Boston, for my first game back there, they gave me a hundred tickets for everyone in the hospital that worked on my case and helped me. And I have to say that that type of thing brings tears to my eyes. People were that great to me when I was up against it.

BB: Your story is one that I’ve known for a while and it’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Switching themes a little bit I want to get your perspective on how the NHL has changed from your era. How has it evolved? How has the role of referee changed during that time?

PS: Well on the equipment front certainly there have been changes. The goaltenders pads, the composite sticks, the lighter equipment, and even the faster drying sweaters. Back in the day when I was playing the sweaters were actually heavy and wool, and got wet easily. In the minors we would throw our bags under the bus and get to the next city and put on cold uniforms that had more ice than sweat.

And in terms of the game, the emphasis now is on speed it’s on more of a reckless style. There is less of the crashing and banging that there was in the day when the Flyers and the Bruins led the league in wins and Stanley Cups. When you think of the 70’s era Bruins, and you think about Bobby Orr, one of the greatest players that ever played – they had skill but they also had toughness. Now its speed and of course the red line is gone, along with the tag up rule. The whole dynamic has changed. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,

Another thing is the diet of the players. Back in the day, we were steak and potato guys. Usually before the games the most stretching we did was to reach for the newspaper and to grab a smoke and a cup of coffee. Back in my day the players and even the referees went to training camp to get in shape. Now the players come and officials come in shape. Dave Smith works with the referees now for the NHL, and has worked for them for 20-plus years. He keeps an eye on the conditioning and the injuries of the officials. Back in the day we depended on the home team trainer or athletic therapist to help us with our injuries. As I tell people in those days I was on the ice and had very little equipment. I had small elbow pads, little shin pads, a cup, a whistle, a sweater and a pair of black wool pants. That was it. There was not the equipment there is today, no helmets, no visors, no mouth pieces. We just played and refereed the game relying upon intuitiveness and luck.

BB: And it’s amazing – I watch some of the games you were doing and it seems a player could chip the puck past a defenceman, and that defenceman would hold that player to give his partner more time! Not something we would ever see today.

PS: There was a guy named Brad Marsh that played for a long time with Philadelphia and Ottawa, and I don’t think he could skate 3 strides without holding onto somebody. I used to say to him “did you get enough crazy glue on your gloves tonight?”. And we would laugh about that. But everybody had their own had their forte, during the game. For example, if you took away the puck from Gordie Howe in the corner, you knew you were going to take an elbow to the side of the head, so there was a certain aspects to the game that people look forward to and I would say that overall I was one who learned and adapted quickly.

BB: One big thing you were talking about was athleticism. Could you talk about that and about doing the three-man system? Is it harder than doing four-man today?

PS: When I broke into officiating I was by myself. I had two linesman and you  had to count on them to move into the zone to cover the net because you couldn’t always make it from the goal line to the red line. And when you had guys like Cournoyer and Billy Barber and guys that could really skate, then you really had to be able to motor. All of the sudden in the mid-90s we added the second referee. In fact, I refereed the first game in the NHL in the modern era with two referees. Kerry Fraser and myself, along with linesmen Kevin Collins and Pat Dapuzzo, worked it at Madison Square Garden. And what’s interesting about that is that all of a sudden Fraser and I aren’t skating forwards, but backwards most of the time.

There is no way that a person could do a three-man game today. Because the red line is gone – it’s a fact that there is no referee that can get from goal-line to goal-line in 5 seconds. And now the puck is moving so fast and the passes are are off the glass and the glass is so high – you really need the two referees. And I don’t think people understand that it’s a faster game – and the players are bigger now.

My grandfather used to coach Chicago back in the 1930’s and the average player in those days was 5’8’’ or 5’9’’. Occasionally you would see a six footer but not often. But when you look at teams like Las Vegas or Washington, both in the Stanley Cup final, I mean they are big teams. You look at Ovechkin, and you got to understand he’s pushing 240 pounds. Back in the day that’s twice as much as some players weighed. A good example of players from back in the day is Dave Keon. Dave Keon wasn’t a big guy but he was quick and clever. But when you look at him versus an Ovechkin – if Ovechkin ever ran into him they’d be scraping Keon off the ice.

Guys like Tony Twist, Brad May, Rob Ray – those guys you had your hands full with, and those were the guys that I refereed. And the guys that I’ve played against like Secord were extremely tough. But they could also play hockey.

BB: I follow your blog pretty closely and I still laugh because I know one term that you hate is “game management”. I’m wondering if you could provide your take on “managing” the game back in the eighties and nineties.

PS: I don’t like the term “game management” because it often means you are thinking about balancing the game and not reacting. Part of my game is to let it unfold. I had great teachers helped me like my dad, John McCauley, and Frank Udvarienberry, who were Hall of Fame guys. I mean Scotty Morrison and other different people who supervised me along the way they brought hundreds of years of experience into my repertoire so that I could take a game and understand that whatever happens tonight is going to happen tomorrow. So I was constantly learning. Even until the last game I refereed in the NHL. I looked at the tape and knew that there were two or three things I could have done better.

And I think that’s an aspect of your own personal management that you need to be honest with yourself about and understand that when you make mistakes, often it is because of bad positioning or lack of hustle or bad sight line. And I think that those are things that I try to stress when I teach officials, and coach them into being better. But with regard to what constitutes a penalty my recipe was very simple. If they had done it to me and I was playing and I would be ticked off and would want to go fight them that was probably a penalty. If they did it to my teammates and I wanted to jump the bench and go out and beat the tar out of them that was probably a penalty. Last but not least if I was sitting at the end of the bench and my teammate did something stupid to a guy on the other team and then I put my hand across my eyes and asked “why did he do that” – then no doubt that was a penalty!

BB: As we know, you had a pretty good playing career. But you also mentioned you had a bit of a fighting role. And I’m curious when you made that transition from playing to refereeing did that help you at all?

PS: Sometimes it helped me, but it also hurt me sometimes. One of my first games in the American League two guys were shadow boxing for a good amount of time. After a while, I told the players to start punching or I was going to take my whistle off and do it myself.  Management was not pleased with that. But that was my style. And I have brought into the game a little bit of my knowledge from having played. In fact, I was part of the reason there was a referee when I was a player.

So I understood all of the different roles. And having played with lots of great players like Mike Gardner and Mark Messier, and playing against Frank Mahovlich, Gordie Howe, and Bobby Hull. I mean these are legendary names. And when you look at the various things that they did and now we see players flipping and flopping and looking like a bunch of flounders.  

BB: And so you sort of bridged to a topic that I wanted to talk about. You bring back memories and I get the image of referees who had personality. I mean you guys still wore last names on the jerseys. Everyone knew who you were. You had a reputation, and you had a relationship with the players. To my eyes, today it doesn’t seem like there’s that relationship with a lot of guys. Do you see that?

PS: I’m not sure what the management of the National Hockey League is telling players. I’m not sure what Management of the National Hockey League is telling referees. What I tell my referees, however, is that if a game starts at 7PM, you don’t start refereeing until the players tell you they need you. And they’ll tell you by the reactions. They are going to show you that they need you and that’s when you step up. Until then you’re just a paid observer. Just watch the game and let it unfold and allow the players to feel themselves out and get their legs going.

In terms of dealing with difficult players, put the onus back on their coach. I think that these are things that I had a little bit of panache and nobody could intimidate me, not even the guys like Scotty Bowman, Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan. None of those guys were going to scare me out of the ring. And I’m going to tell you they paid me to do the job and I earned it. I earned every penny. And I never gave anybody less than 100%.

BB: So you’re saying you never back down. What are some tools you used when dealing with these guys? I would assume you’re probably using some of humour? I mean what are some of the things that you’re teaching your officials now in terms of communication?

PS: We’re not traffic cops – don’t put your arm up and say I’m not talking to you. What you do is if the coach is barking at you, call the captain over and you say that the coach needs to calm down and I’ll talk to him in a minute. If I think he’s putting on a show – the only show he might be seeing for the rest of the night will be in the washroom, because because he’ll be in there taking a shower. And we’ll be out on the ice.

But you need to have a tolerance and patience. Remember you’re going to be dealing with young players. So you’ve got to realize they’re going to make mistakes. Use your brain, use your experience – and remember that this isn’t life and death. Have fun out there! I enjoyed the game. I loved watching the players play. One night I remember talking to a young kid before a face-off. He was standing there and Gretzky was on the other side. I asked if it was his first game – he said yes. Then I asked him if he realized he was going winning the face-off. We laughed. You have some fun with this. It’s a game. And people want to be entertained so entertain them.

BB: I agree with you. And I think a with our podcast the idea was to start teaching officials and be able to learn from guys like you that have remarkable experience. I know that you were involved with with the Continental Hockey League, and now with college hockey in teaching officials and being a supervisor. And I’m wondering if you could talk about what is it that you look for in aspiring referees?

PS: I look for Fitness first of all. “Conditioning allows for positioning”. You have to remember that the game of hockey is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You’re going to be out there for at least 60 minutes, so you better be in shape. That’s the first thing. Second thing, Frank Udvari said this to me – “excuses are for losers, if you make a mistake own it”. Get into the game and allow the players to understand that you’re sweating and you’re working hard. When you make a penalty call and are hustling and blow the whistle and you’re 7 feet from them – how are they going to argue with you? So you get to the action and feel the game and anticipate. Don’t overreact. Let it flow.

And as I say Wally Harris once was a supervisor at game I had and I called one penalty. And when he walked into the dressing room at the end of the game, he said “why did you ruin that game – that should have been a no-hitter – we should have been out here ten minutes ago!” So I think keep it in perspective. But I also understand that if you see a team that’s just coming off of two bad losses and they’re trying like hell don’t bury them with a bad penalty. Make them earn their goals are assists and the penalties. Be frugal.

BB: I think it’s really good advice. When you are trying to recruit referees, do you look a lot at former players? I know the NHL has been pushing hard to recruit former players.

PS: Not necessarily. What I hope for referees is that they have the greatest love for the game – and that they played just as long as they could. I hope that their love for the game will translate into them wanting to stay in the game. And I tell people that my life in hockey is sort of like a big pizza. Each slice is a different role that I’ve had. I’ve driven the zamboni. I’ve sharpened skates. I’ve made the ice. I’ve swept the seats. I’ve painted the toilets. I’ve driven the bus. There’s not too much I haven’t done in the game. You want to stay part of the game

And I look at a person like King Clancy who played for Toronto and he was a coach and a general manager and all of those things. But he also refereed. And I think that there’s no job too big and there’s no job too small. And if you’re part of the game you should be happy with that. I can promise you that there isn’t a job in the game of hockey that I couldn’t do and do successfully. Why? Because the last thing I would want to do is disappoint myself or hurt the game. And in this stage of my life – where I’m working with three or four hundred officials – I hope my legacy for them will be to give them the smallest learning curve possible. I want them to become experienced and be able to keep the flow going. The best thing I tell referees is positioning sells calls, excuses are for losers, and lastly but not least – a moving puck is your best friend. When the puck stops, that’s when all the crap starts.

BB: I once heard a good quote from Ron MacLean, who said refereeing a game is like holding a bird. You hold the bird too tight you kill the bird. You don’t hold it tight enough and it flies away. Do you have certain takeaways from refereeing games?

PS: You referee the game and use the rulebook as your guide and your shield. Interpret how the players are playing. Try to feel them out. Refereeing a game is like a painter painting. All the parts of the game are like a big pallet of paint. As a referee, you can be the guy that helps shape that painting. But you have to have an attitude of firmness and fairness and courage. And if you have all of that you’re going to be able to be a successful referee.

One last thing. I take exception to people that say that the best referees are the ones that referee a game and the next day nobody knew who they were. That may be good and it might be a great statement for those refereeing in a game where nothing happens. But a really good referee is one that has enough courage to stand right  in the middle of the ice and disallow the winning goal because he’s right. And that’s what you need to find.

BB: That’s great advice. I certainly appreciate taking your time to help our listeners to improve and to share your memories and experiences as an NHL referee.

PS: I’ll tell you my last secret. If you can skate – and that’s key. And you can go through the whole game and not worry about whether your skating. If you can maneuver and skate all night long, and you’re one of the best skaters out there there there will always be a job for you.