During my active officiating career, hockey fans I met would frequently say this to me; "Just between us, what is your favorite NHL team and least favorite team?"
My answer: Every team is my favorite. I love 'em all. They are the reason why I make a living in this sport.
In case you folks haven't noticed by now, saying things for the purpose of being politically correct is not how I operate. I speak my mind for what I believe is right and for the good of the game as I see it. Others are free to disagree.
With that in mind, let me say this. In my 40 years in hockey, I have seen some truly great officials, a slew of average-to-good ones and a few officials who should not be getting assignments at all.
I've seen ones in great physical condition and, more so in the past than present, a few who knew Tim Horton -- the company, not the late player -- and Dunkin' on a first-name basis. I've seen hulks like Jay Sharrers and diminutive guys like Ray Scapinello. I've worked with truly great guys who are friends for life and some with whom I prefer to keep my distance.
You know something I've never seen? I've never seen a referee or linesman who is "biased" toward or against a particular team. I would say so if it was otherwise, and probably would have to be physically separated from the SOB if we were in the same place at the same time.
The truth is, however, that officials are wired to focus on doing their own job. They are part of their own team and it doesn't matter where the official comes from geographically or which team they may have liked in their youth.
Those who say otherwise are clueless. I'll illustrate how ridiculous this idea is by transferring it to a player: Roberto Luongo was born and raised in Montreal and grew up as a Habs fan. Does that mean he's spent his NHL career secretly pulling for the Canadiens? Of course not.
I was born and raised in Boston and played in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques. That made absolutely zero difference when I worked a Bruins game or a Nordiques/Avalanche game. My loyalty was to the game and to upholding the responsibilities of being an official.
In that way, I was no different than anyone else I've ever known or observed officiate this sport. I can already hear the troglodytes -- information going in one neanderthalic ear and out the other -- say, "Yeah, but the refs really are biased against my team, especially Official X."
People who are drawn to sports officiating have two traits in common: Love of the game, and a desire to contribute to it in some way. In all sports, the Tim Donaghy type of cases are extremely rare and I've (thankfully) never seen a hockey equivalent. I've known some jerks and some people with sub-par performance, but not a single one who tried to fix games out of self-interest.
Officials who make it in sports take the game's integrity and their own sense of impartiality with the utmost seriousness. I learned these values from the very best teachers: my father and grandfather. Two stories about my dad:
My father reffed a Beanpot game in 1970. Two days later, I was playing for Groton School at Brooks. We go on the ice and who's reffing this Wednesday afternoon, work day, weekday game? Yup, none other than my dad. He was available and took the game during this February vacation day. I had no idea he'd be there.
We won the game, 4-1. Afterward, the Brooks coach -- publicly, in the middle of the common skate changing area -- calls my dad out for reffing a game that I played in.
My father calmly stood up, looked at the Brooks Coach and said in a calm voice that was just loud enough for everyone to hear, "Paul got the goal and assist on his own. I gave him the four minor penalties he also deserved."
The Brooks coach had no response.
Story two: I was playing in the Boston Park league for Mary Ann's in Brighton and Billy Mahoney. I was a .300 hitter at Groton and hit nearly .400 at Penn as a freshman. I drove my dad to Cleveland Circle, he got out in front of the Howard Johnson's (now called something else) and walked behind HOJO's to the diamond. He didn't want people to see us together because he was officiating and I was playing. I parked the car where the players parked by the power house and joined my teammates.
During one of my at-bats, the pitcher threw a high inside fastball. I let it go as the pitch was not hittable.
"Strike one!" the umpire barked.
Next pitch is almost identical. I let it go again.
I stepped out of the batter's box and glared back. My father turned his head and refused to make eye contact. I got back in the box.
The third pitch started out inside and I was going to at least try to foul it off but then it froze me as it suddenly broke sharply down and away. It was one hell of a nasty slider.
I turned and walked back to the dugout.
Driving home, I casually asked him, "Did you think those three pitches were good enough to hit?"
Cold as ice, he replied, "A .300 hitter hits anything close. You were looking for a gift. Swing the bat."
These lessons were hardwired into me before I ever pulled on referee's sweater for the first time. Bias never entered my mind when I walked into the rink, nor ever crossed the threshold at our house.
Now, mind you, I was blessed to be the grandson of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame NHL referee and longtime Major League Baseball umpire Bill Stewart and the son of Bill Stewart Jr., who was every bit as good of an official as my granddad despite not working in pro leagues. Nevertheless, the code that officials of all backgrounds from all around the hockey world uphold is identical.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.
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 the chairman of the officiating and league discipline committee 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.