NHL Referee Paul Stewart strides through the bowels of Madison Square Garden before a hockey game, doing one of the things he does best: working the crowd. Security guards, ticket takers, maintenance men, the Zamboni driver and team trainers all get a greeting and a bit of the blarney from Stewart. Suddenly Stewart spots New York Ranger general manager Phil Esposito. "Hey, Espo," he yells down the corridor, "how are you?"
Esposito's face lights up in recognition. "I can't believe it. I can't believe this guy's a referee," he says gleefully as he shakes Stewart's hand.
That sort of reaction is common among those who knew Stewart in his previous incarnation as one of pro hockey's designated hired guns, a player of limited skills who forged a modest career with his fists. After all, how many players who received an astonishing 1,242 penalty minutes in just 285 pro games have gone on to become upholders of law and order on ice? For that matter, what other referee has broken his nose 15 times and taken 800 stitches? No wonder Esposito is surprised.
Then again, how many pro hockey players learned their stuff at the exclusive Groton (Mass.) School and at the University of Pennsylvania? And how many graduates of those institutions hail from the Irish Catholic section of the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain? The fact is, Stewart has been fighting the odds and achieving the unexpected most of his life.
He comes at you, talking nonstop, with his piercing blue-green eyes flashing one moment, then suddenly softening into tears as he remembers someone who may have helped him through rough times in his life. Clearly, Stewart is a highly motivated man whose emotions can run to extremes. His unbridled belief in himself, combined with a penchant for self-promotion, has sometimes rankled people, but it is those qualities that have enabled him to accomplish as much as he has.
Stewart, 32, has always been scrappy. He was the third of four children. "He'd get into fights in the morning and then he'd come home to get cleaned up and have lunch with his mother," says his father, Bill, a retired high school administrator and athletic director. Paul recalls his first fight vividly: "I was in the first grade and at Halloween I had a Robin Hood costume with one of those hats with plumes. An eighth-grader took my hat and broke a feather. He shouldn't have done that. It was a nice hat. I kicked him right in the wrong spot, if you know what I mean. I just never have been afraid of anybody."
Nor has he been afraid to try anything, even if failure seemed probable. First, of course, he wasn't supposed to be at Groton, a tony prep school with a student body consisting in no small part of well-scrubbed, well-spoken young men with the blue blood of Lodges or Harrimans or Roosevelts in their veins, and most definitely not feisty fast-talking Irish Catholic kids named Stewart. Stewart wound up at Groton through his father's athletic connections there. Shortly after his arrival, one snotty Grottie told Stewart he wouldn't last until Christmas. But, with help from newfound friends and teachers such as Junie O'Brien, Stewart persevered. "Everybody saw the brash kid, but very few people knew how much he liked to read and how loyal he was and how much he cared about people," says O'Brien, who taught Stewart English literature.
Penn was another place Stewart wasn't supposed to be, but he had always aspired to an Ivy League college. He matriculated in the fall of 1972 and majored in Asian history, but most of his effort went into hockey. From the beginning, the other players on the team, almost all of them Canadian, had no idea how to take this American whose sole aim was to make the pros and whose attitude toward hockey was far more serious than anyone else's. A C+ student, Stewart also enjoyed taking karate lessons, pumping iron in the weight room and hanging around kibitzing with members of the Philadelphia Flyers, who practiced at the Penn rink. "The other guys wanted to drink beer and party all the time," says Stewart. "I'd go into the dressing room, and nobody would talk to me. I wasn't one of the guys. They all lived together in a house. They thought it was cool not to go to class." Says Bob Crocker, who was then the Penn coach and is now the assistant general manager of the Hartford Whalers, "They probably looked at Paul as a rah-rah hot-dog sort of guy. Maybe they thought of him as a braggart; he was certainly verbose. But he could always back up anything he said."
By Stewart's senior year, his situation had become unbearable. "Every day was an emotional wrench," he says. "I was such an outcast on that team. One day in practice I was standing in front of the net and this guy cross-checks me in the back of the neck. It cracked my third cervical vertebra. After three weeks, against the doctor's advice, I was ready to play again. In the dressing room before practice, I went up to the guy who had hit me and I said to him, Td just like to ask you why you hit me from behind with the stick. I mean, what did I ever do to you?' He said, 'Screw you, I'm not here to be friends with you.' "
Wrong answer. During the ensuing scrimmage, Stewart lined up his nemesis as he came around the net, took three or four good strides and hit him hard in the chest with the point of his shoulder. "I lifted him right off the ice," he remembers. "I knocked him backward, both elbows hit the edge of the dasher and he dislocated his clavicle and separated his shoulder." After taking on two of the fallen player's allies, Stewart yelled to the rest of the team, "Anybody else want to try me?" Later, alone, he cried. "I had tried everything I knew," he says with no hint of regret. "I just couldn't get along with those guys."
Within four days of the scuffle, Stewart had earned a spot with the Binghamton (N.Y.) Dusters of the North American Hockey League, the equivalent of baseball's Class A. His days as a professional tough guy had begun. Over the course of the next six years, Stewart played for 11 teams in six leagues, including a 21-game stint with the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL and a 63-game stay with Cincinnati of the World Hockey Association. Stewart was usually listed on the roster as a forward, but he was really the designated fighter.
The stories of Stewart's subsequent on-ice theatrics are well-known in hockey circles. In the fall of '76, Stewart was playing for a Ranger rookie team that went to Quebec to play the Three Rivers Draveurs, a Canadian Junior A team. Stewart's reputation had preceded him, and the Draveurs were ready. In the third period, as Stewart was chasing a puck into his own corner, four players charged him from behind. "They banged into me and drove my head right into the glass," Stewart recalls. "I was pretty dazed. The puck was going somewhere up ice, my legs felt like twisted macaroni. Everybody in the arena was roaring. [Goalie Gilles] Gratton was trying to steer me back to the bench. Then I looked up, my head cleared and I saw the biggest one of the Three Rivers bunch coming down the middle of the ice, looking back for a pass. I took about five or six good strides and hit him with a bodycheck that would flatten anybody. He crumpled like a piece of toilet paper. Then some of their players came over the boards after me. I grabbed Gratton's goalie stick and cleared out a path for myself to make it to my bench and then into the dressing room. I was still a little foggy—the trainer was waving ammonia under my nose. I could hear the cops outside and people trying to get after me. All of a sudden, the door swung open and there was this huge shadow and a puff of cigar smoke. I stood up and said, 'Don't come near me or I'll get you, too.' Turned out it was John Ferguson, the Rangers' general manager. He said, 'Whoa, whoa, Paul, relax. It's me.' "
Ferguson, now vice-president and general manager of Winnipeg, laughs as he remembers the incident now. "He hit that guy so hard. It was a clean check," he says. "When I went down to the dressing room, he thought I was crashing the room."
In 1979 Stewart finally made it to the NHL, having hopscotched his way from the Ranger organization to Quebec. His high point as a player came that Thanksgiving Day, when he played against Boston in his first regular-season NHL game. "I got to Boston, I didn't even need a plane," he says. "I couldn't sleep the night before. The day of the game, I couldn't eat. I was all pumped up. I went to the hotel, knocked on [Quebec coach Jacques] Demers's door, walked in and kissed him right on the face. I was so grateful."
The game was a fight fan's dream. First Stewart took on Bruin tough guy Terry O'Reilly. "You're not the only Irishman in the building tonight," Stewart yelled at O'Reilly just before they dropped their gloves. Then he tangled with Stan Jonathan, and in the final period, with Boston's third big bruiser, Al Secord. As he left the ice after the Secord battle—a third major penalty for fighting means automatic ejection—the crowd went wild over the hometown kid who had just taken on the biggest and baddest of the Big Bad Bruins.
Stewart ran out of teams to fight for soon after that, but he didn't care. "I had done it once," he says. "It's like putting the flag on the top of the mountain—there's no need to do it again. I had proved myself to all the detractors, all the negative people who had stepped on me and pushed me around."
And what of those who saw Stewart as a goon, a symbol of all that's wrong with professional hockey? Stewart is quick to defend himself. "I never fought anybody who wasn't a tough guy," he says. "I never went after a smaller player. I wouldn't have had any respect for myself and, remember, that's what I was after—respect." The term "goon," he says, is a "meaningless catchall phrase."
But if his tough-guy days were over, his tough times weren't. After retiring from hockey in 1981, he drifted for two years, doing substitute teaching, hosting a radio call-in show on Cape Cod, even working part-time for the South Yarmouth, Mass., police department. His marriage, which had been strained to the limit by all the traveling and all the turmoil, fell apart after seven years. Stewart was alone and uncertain, without the urgent motivation he had always felt before. He knew he wanted to stay in sports somehow, but how?
He didn't have to look far from home for an answer. His late grandfather, Bill Stewart, who coached the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 1938," later served as an NHL referee as well as a major league baseball umpire. His father had also been a legendary coach, at Boston English high, as well as an official in hockey, football and baseball. Officiating was in the Stewart genes.
And so, in July 1983, going right to the top as usual, Stewart called Scotty Morrison, then the NHL's vice-president of officiating. "He kind of caught me by surprise," remembers Morrison, who is now president of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. "I knew of his dastardly reputation, but I also knew of his family background. I was a great admirer of his grandfather. I said, 'Paul, are you serious?' He said he was."
Less than three years later, after refereeing hundreds of games in the minors, Stewart worked his first NHL game. "I think part of the reason Paul has made it so fast is that he is so determined," says Morrison. "He's got the physical attributes—he's a big guy, he's a good skater—and, let's face it, he's got the temperament."
In an odd bit of casting, it was Boston Garden, site of Stewart's memorable NHL debut as a player, that also provided the setting for his first game as an NHL ref in March 1986, when he entered a scrap between the Bruins and Canadiens as a replacement for injured referee Dave Newell. The game was, like most events in Stewart's life, dramatic. In the second period, he lost sight of the puck near the Canadiens' goal. Believing that the puck was caught in the goalie's armpit, he blew the whistle—too quickly, he concedes in retrospect—just before a Bruin shoveled the loose puck into the net for what would have been the goal that Boston needed to avoid a tie.
Stewart has made few mistakes since then. He is one of just two Americans among the 14 refs in the NHL. As the U.S. referee in Game 2 of September's Canada Cup finals between the U.S.S.R. and Canada, Stewart did such an outstanding job that his career probably received a critical boost. His schedule this season calls for him to officiate 40 games in the NHL and 40 in the AHL.
Like many NHL officials, Stewart believes that fighting may be on the decline in the NHL, pointing to several recent rule changes that give referees greater discretion in dealing with would-be pugilists. He now views as anachronistic the brawling style he once espoused. Still, Stewart firmly believes that his experience as a player is an asset in his refereeing. "I can just feel that energy coming out of the players," he says. "I can see that glint in the eye, the quickening of the pace, the look over the shoulder. I say to myself, 'Uh-oh, here they go; heads up.' Nothing they do can surprise me because I've seen it or done it myself."
Stewart has a slew of admirers now. But in his quiet moments he remembers when no one outside his family was behind him, when the world seemed preoccupied with telling him what he couldn't do. It's then that he likes to quote the inscription from the ancient Stewart family crest: COURAGE GROWS STRONG AT THE WOUND. Stewart has done his forebears proud.