Still Chasing the Puck: Paul Stewart ’72

Paul Stewart ’72

The salutation read “Comrades.” The email was sent from Russia by Paul Stewart ’72 to a collection of people in his contact list. Paul had been hired by the Kontinental Hockey League of Russia to oversee, evaluate, and improve the officiating of Russian ice hockey referees. The trip from Massachusetts to Siberia was a long one that began in 1982 when Paul was at a professional and personal crossroads.

His NHL career had ended unceremoniously, he was without direction, without purpose; the ice had melted beneath his skates. Paul credits his mother and a therapist for helping restore order and purpose. His mother showed him his father’s resume, saying a busy man is a happy man. The therapist gave him permission to find his future on the ice again; it was then that he became an official. He loved it. The work was hard; it demanded a mental and physical commitment that resonated with him. It also enabled him to be a steward of the game, responsible for a sense of fair play and adherence to hockey’s rules and history.

As a rookie official he traveled the East Coast rink to rink, from Erie, Pennsylvania to Roanoke, Virginia, with a box of pizza and a six-pack of Coke on the passenger seat as he crisscrossed the New York Thruway and Interstate 81. Wherever they needed him, he went cheerfully, with the zeal of a convert. As is true for many a Groton graduate, he put more pressure on himself than did those around him, but with each game assignment he became more confident and assured that he had found his niche. Each time he put on his referee sweater he felt the pride of partnership with the players, coaches, fans, and fellow referees—a partnership that wasn’t always reciprocated as he moved up in the ranks.

In the early 1980s, John McCauley, director of officiating for the NHL, was determined to increase the number of Americans in the ranks of NHL officials and gave Paul the nod to move from the lower ranks of professional hockey to the “show.” His first NHL referee training camp, with Canadian referees, included a trip to the emergency room: his head was split open during an “exercise.” He knew a confrontation was coming because his fellow referees were talking about it in the locker room prior to the session. His time as a member of the Canadians and the Rangers taught him to be tough and take hits. His time at Groton, five days a week in St. John’s Chapel, taught him to love those who loved him and to like the rest. So he toughed out the training camp and made it to the center ice in 1994, working more than 1,000 professional games until his retirement from the NHL in 2003.

But Paul did not leave the ice, nor did he leave officiating; in many ways he was just getting warmed up when he left the glorious grind that is professional hockey. He was recruited to direct the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s officiating program for men’s and women’s hockey. As he moved from practitioner to preacher, from guardian of one game at a time to educator and mentor, the lessons learned at Groton and throughout his life became even more important: show up, do your job, know the rules, know the game, and know that your attitude will determine how the game is played. When he took over the directorship, the ECAC had gone through seven directors in six years. The referees were undisciplined. This was not the way Paul saw officiating and he let them know it. He fired a number of referees, sending a message that “… if you aren’t going to put on your sweater with pride, don’t put it on at all.” As guardians of the game, his officials were going to respect the athletes, the fans, and the game each and every time.

He knew how to walk the walk and his experiences and approach to referee development and discipline garnered trust from the coaches and the players and eventually from his cadre of referees. Paul studied the characteristics of the teams and the coaches; he learned the relative strengths of his referees and assigned them to college games, balancing the temperaments of the teams versus those of the referees. His work with ECAC caught the attention of the Russian KHL.

With a walkout/lockout in the offing for the NHL in 2012-13, the KHL looked at its own officiating program and realized that it was not up to the level of consistency and clarity that existed in the NHL. Assuming that they would get an influx of NHL players if the lockout occurred, they wanted to be sure that their league was ready—that the players could count on high quality and knowledgeable referees. Hence, the email from Omsk, Russia, where Paul is working with Russian officials as vice president of officiating, working hand in glove with Russian ice hockey legend Alexander Medvedev to improve the quality of Russian officiating.

Paul’s life on the ice continues. He serves as mentor and guide to young referees and is always looking to instill the values of a life well lived on and off the ice to the young men and women beginning to make their way in the world. He is an educator in that best Groton tradition, upholding high standards, standing beside those he teaches and supporting them as they strive to attain excellence.

2 Responses to Still Chasing the Puck: Paul Stewart ’72

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.