A Little Mental Clorox Does the Trick

When officials put on their equipment, they should take out of their bags an invisible bottle of Clorox. Before they head out to the rink, they should magically soak their brains and bleach out any preexisting thoughts about the game. Take experience and feel out with them and then ref the game as it happens.

Granted, an experienced referee will take a look back when certain types of players -- such as Glenn Anderson -- get behind them. Some players need to be watched more closely than others, and I never knew where Anderson or Claude Lemieux was going to be or what they were going to do when they thought my back was turned.

Nevertheless, I had to ref every game like it was a new sheet cake; take things as they happened and deal with it, using feel for the game and the patience not to mentally "fill in the blanks" and assume that because Player X was on the ice, such-and-such was bound to happen. I found that talking to the guys, working with the coaches and skating hard usually got the respect that I needed to do the job.

Players didn't screw with me because they knew I didn't care. I'd ding them if I had to, home or away. Likewise, most players respected me because I wiped the slate clean, each season and each game.

Mental Clorox helped, trust me. I used a lot every time I got dressed and put on my skates.

Some readers -- the types who are inclined to believe that referees are part of a conspiracy against their favorite team or player -- willfully chose to misinterpret or skew the meaning of the term "acceptability" between players and officials. This does NOT mean looking the other way because an official personally likes Player A while "inventing" calls on Player B because they've clashed in the past.

Rather, acceptability means that a player or official can mess up and the slate is wiped clean because there is an underpinning of respect that has been earned over time. How many times have you heard people say, "When will officials have some accountability when they mess up?"

In reality, officials have as much accountability as players do. Everyone has a boss.

Accountability is best exemplified by U.S. President Harry Truman's famous declaration that "the buck stops here." The saying is a twist on the slang expression "passing the buck"; in other words, shirking responsibility and passing it on to someone else, especially if there's a screw-up and someone is to be blamed for the mistake.

As a referee, I always believed that the buck stopped with me to exercise proper judgment about whether to make a call or to let something slide. There are three components to making a call: 1) the action of a player; 2) the rulebook definition of that action's legality; 3) the effect of that player's action on an opposing player and/or the flow of the game.

Some officials weigh the third factor more heavily than others. I was always one to use my feel for the game and the flow of play as a guiding factor in making a judgment call. In doing that, I knew full well that the buck would stop with me. I had to be accountable and my attitude was "bring it on" -- they gave me a sweater and a whistle and I knew the rulebook, so let me judge.

Accountability as a hockey official means that you are answerable to your teammates (meaning your fellow officials). It means that -- within reason -- you are willing to explain a call to the team captains and benches and face the music if you know you messed up. It means knowing when the time for talk is over. It also means that you are willing to accept constructive coaching and criticism from your supervisors, and not only take it to heart but also put their advice into practice as best as possible.

The best possible thing that an official -- or player or coach -- can gain is acceptability. That means you can work well with the game and enjoy the respect and tolerance to dust yourself off when you make a mistake and keep moving forward.

So how does one gain acceptability in hockey? Well, being accountable is one huge piece of the puzzle but it's not the only part.

A second component is there must also be a strong work ethic. Specifically, that means hustling on the ice at all times. Skate hard and be in the right position. Keep yourself in the best possible physical condition. Show a commitment to self-improvement, such as continually working to refine your skating.

A third component is hockey sense. Know where the puck is going and how to anticipate where the flow of play is taking the game. As an official, know the rulebook thoroughly.

A fourth component: display the proper attitude. No game is "beneath" you. To you, whatever game you are participating in right now is the most important one in the world. Understand that your actions will affect your teammates and, possibly, the outcome of a crucial play.

In my post-active career supervisory capacity, I've sometimes had to take on the unfortunate duty of firing referees. I have seen officials who simultaneously demonstrate poor knowledge of the rulebook and bad attitudes. As such, they lacked the acceptability that is crucial for officials and had no genuine desire to learn how to gain it.

I was by no means infallible as a referee, nor was I infallible as an enforcer during my playing days. I certainly made my fair share of mistakes. But what I did have on the ice was a pretty high acceptability factor with most players and some coaches.

In my estimation, "reputation penalties" are most commonly called by referees who are afraid of the game and constantly fearful of their supervisors. They referee by fear. These officials tend to be afraid of physical play; scared that even a clean body check is going to escalate the intensity and make it a tougher night for them. They are quick to dispatch such players.

As leagues have moved to take more and more judgment away from their officials and an emphasis on "managing" rather officiating the game, there has been a corresponding rise in refereeing by fear. There can be no acceptability -- in either direction -- when there is such an unequal relationship within the game.


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.