How an NHL Official Can Command Respect: 5 Keys

Steve Yzerman was one of the greats. He also evolved into a player who commanded a lot of respect among fellow players as a team leader. That does not mean, however, that most officials enjoyed dealing with him.
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I have never been a big believer in demanding respect. Rather, I believe in commanding respect. When someone commands respect, they have earned it. That goes for the relationship between hockey officials and players, officials and coaches, and supervisors and employees. It's a two-way street.

Wearing a striped shirt with an orange band creates a lot of responsibility. What it does not automatically create is personal respect. That has to be earned through a combination of accountability and acceptability. Above all, you must respect the game and give respect to others who have earned it before you can expect it in return.

In my dealings with others on the ice, I always tried to follow a few simple but crucial tenets:

1. Make eye contact. This is a very valuable and simple thing for an official to put into practice. When you look a player or coach in the eye, it sends two important messages in both verbal and non-verbal communications. It conveys both confidence and alertness.

By maintaining eye contact, the players and coaches know you can read them and that you are aware of what they are trying to do. Likewise, maintaining a confident but calm posture between the whistles -- not stooped, bored or like you are spoiling for a fight -- sends a subtle but powerful message about how you will conduct the game.

2. Treat each game with top priority. What is the most important game being played in the league that night? Whichever one you are officiating (or playing or coaching). No game is beneath you.

It doesn't matter whether it's a preseason game or a late-season one between two clubs who are way out of the race. You owe to the game -- and to the paying customers who make it possible for us to make a living in it -- to hustle and to realize that it is a privilege to be out there. Keep yourself in good shape and don't make excuses. If you believe otherwise, get the hell off the ice.

3. Don't make idle threats or false promises. At the point you tell the players or coaches, "That's enough! Do that again and someone sits!" you have drawn a line in the sand. If someone crosses it, you NEED to make the call.

In the moment, it may be tempting to spare yourself the grief and give a "second-chance final warning." In the long-run, you command a lot more respect by being a man of your word.

4. Support your teammates. Officials are human beings, and some people get along better than others. Behind closed doors, officials sometimes have disagreements about the handling of a certain play or whether the correct call was made in a particular instance.

On the ice, you are a team and must act accordingly. Your goal together is to get the calls right, but you also need to stand up for one another. Don't air your dirty laundry on the ice, even if you are ticked off at a teammate.

Unity is the key distinguishing marks of any good hockey team. It doesn't matter what league you are talking about, whether it's midget, junior, minor pro, the KHL or another European elite league or the NHL. No matter how individual talent there is, the team is doomed to failure unless there's a united we stand, divided we fall mentality that is placed above anyone's personal goals.

Every team talks about unity. Coaches preach it non-stop. But talking about it and actually demonstrating it on a consistent basis are two different things.

In good times, they push each other to be even better. In tough times, they stand together and never throw a teammate under the bus, especially not in public. When an opponent or outsider takes liberties on a teammate, the others instinctively come to their comrade's defense.

Having been both an NHL player and an NHL referee, I can tell you that the very same dynamic applies to officials. Referees and linesmen are teammates on the ice, and they need to function as such in order to effective and make the right calls. That includes standing up for another when a teammate get mistreated by a player or coach.

As most of you know, my role as a player was that of an enforcer. I took a lot of pride in it, because it was the one way I could make a living in this game. I was big and strong, and I knew how to fight. I certainly lost my share, but I will add that I never quit battling and was never intimidated by anyone.

I have always taken the well-being of my teammates very seriously, and I will never apologize for the protective instincts that I have both on and off the ice. As a referee, I took it more personally when someone treated my teammates poorly than even when they yelled and cursed at me.

When I wrote my recent "Hecklers, Hooligans and the Striped-Shirted Maitre D" blog, I listed Steve Yzerman among the players I least enjoyed dealing with on the ice. That took many readers by surprise, because Yzerman generally has a strong public reputation as someone who was a great team leader and a key force in the Detroit Red Wings' success.

Listen, as a player, Yzerman was absolutely one of the greats. He also evolved into a player who commanded a lot of respect among fellow players as a team leader on Detroit once the team finally got -- and stayed -- good after years of struggles.

That does not mean, however, that most officials enjoyed dealing with him.

My own problems with Yzerman started as a result of him mistreating my teammates. He was abusive to linesmen, and it made my protective instincts kick in and tell him off in no uncertain terms. The spark was lit after he belittled and verbally abused longtime linesman Mark Pare on an icing call in Detroit. It went way beyond simply yelling about a blown call. He treated Mark and other officials like they didn't even belong on the same ice as he did.

My next run-in with Yzerman came as a result of a disallowed goal in Minnesota. The dialogue won't be repeated on a family-friendly blog but suffice to say he wasn't a big fan of my style nor I of his. He made it personal and then escalated it when he elected to gripe to the media about me.

Yzerman's attitude toward officials was is the epitome of demanding respect rather than commanding it. I let him know in no uncertain terms that I was not going to kowtow, nor would I put up with him trying to bully or belittle my teammates.

5. Don't take yourself too seriously. There is a time to put on the game face and bear down. But there is also ample opportunity to lighten the mood at the rink. I always had fun kibitzing with the players and the fans. I loved the give-and-take of it, and could always laugh at myself.

A fun example: During the spring of 1995, I was on the road and decided to get a haircut. I asked for a trim and the barber went a bit overboard with the shears. The next game I refereed was in Dallas. The late Peter Zezel was the first one who saw me.

"What's the name of that barber you went to?" he said.

I asked why he wanted to know.

"No one should be allowed to do that to one of our guys!" Pete said with a mock horrified look on face.

Said another player, "Geez, Stewy! Are you auditioning for Forrest Gump?!"

I couldn't help but laugh. Until my hair grew out, whenever someone would call me Paul, I'd say "That's Forrest to you."

Relationship-building doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. But once the relationship is established and a rapport of mutual acceptability is built, there is leeway to short-circuit would-be confrontations through humor. You also learn which people you can joke around with and which one you can't.

Perfect case in point: Mark Messier and I are old friends and former teammates.

We go all the way back together to the late 1970s when I was an enforcer for the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers and Mark was a teenage rookie in his first pre-NHL year of pro hockey. We hit it off right away and the friendship has lasted through the years, even when we switched uniforms and I became an official.

That did not mean, of course, that Messier and I never had a disagreement over a call.

Messier was as intense of a competitor as I have ever seen and I had my own job to do. We weren't always going to see eye to eye. But because we had established a rapport and had a history together, we could say things to each other that might not be appropriate in interactions with others.

One time during Mark's days with the New York Rangers, I refereed a game in Montreal. Several calls went against the Rangers. The New York bench was barking at me, with Messier being the most vocal and insistent. At one point he stood up, hollering.

Finally, I skated over to the Rangers bench.

"Hey, you!" I said, looking Messier in the eyes. "Sit down and shut up!"

Mark knew what I was doing, and that the message was directed at the entire team. "Oh, OK."

He sat down.

Colin Campbell, then the Rangers coach, squeaked at me. "Hey! You can't say that to him!"

I smirked. "Why not? I was the one who bought him his first beer."

I didn't hear another peep from the Rangers' bench the rest of the night.


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 Eastern College Athletic Conference (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 every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.

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