Jump in the Fire: My Opening Night in the NHL

Tonight is opening night of the NHL regular season. For some guys, it will be the long-awaited night they make their NHL debut. That wasn't the case for me. My personal "opening night" as an NHL player came on Thanksgiving of 1979. I made my NHL refereeing debut on March 27, 1986.

Every player, coach and referee who has ever appeared in the NHL has his own story to tell about his first game in the League. The tale of my first game reffing in the NHL is an unconventional one. That's par for the course with me. For whatever reason, nothing major in my life ever seems to happen the "normal" way.

Both my NHL playing and refereeing debuts were made in my hometown of Boston. That was a special kind of thrill.

After my playing days ended, I enrolled in Bruce Hood's referee training school in 1983. I worked my way up the ladder over over the next three years. The first NHL game I worked was in my hometown of Boston, but it wasn't a game I was assigned beforehand to referee.

On Thursday, March 27, 1986, one of the great NHL rivalries was renewed when the Montreal Canadiens came to the Boston Gahden (umm, sorry, Garden). The referee for the game was veteran Dave Newell.

Oddly enough, Newell was also the referee in my NHL playing debut as a member of the Quebec Nordiques. It was Dave who escorted me off the ice with an automatic game misconduct after I got three fights in the game.

During my first officiating camp, Newell gave me some useful advice that others were going to test me to see how I reacted. He was right. Many, many years later, I saw my longtime NHL boss Bryan Lewis when I calmed down an incensed Dave Newell and prevented him from physically confronting Lewis.

It's funny how paths keep crossing in life and hockey.

Anyway, I attended the Habs-Bruins game. The NHL hadn't sent me to work the game, although I was sitting next to John McCauley in the pressbox. I was a young ref in training for an NHL career but I was also there as a hockey fan. The last thing I expected was to actually get out on the ice that night.

As fate would have it, Newell suffered a rib injury early in the second period. He had to leave the game.

I was asked by John if I would like to work the rest of the game. I thought it over for -- oh, a tenth of a millisecond -- and the next thing I knew, I was out on the ice with my heart racing and the adrenaline pumping.

I entered the game at the 3:20 mark of the second period, and refereed the rest of the match.

Now, every referee hopes that the game goes by without any major problems. Contrary to what some people said about me over the years, I NEVER consciously tried to call attention upon myself nor did I want to be "the story" of a particular game. I was enthusiastic and aggressive because I love the game and that's just my personality to wear my heart on my sleeve. The fact that the sleeve happened to have an orange horizontal stripe on it had nothing to do with my demeanor.

Alas, it has always been my lot in life that nothing can ever just sail along quietly. In that very first NHL game when I substituted for Newell, I made a call that sparked controversy.

Here's what happened: Late in the second period with the Bruins leading 3-2, Boston forward Steve Kasper put a shot on net. Montreal rookie goaltender Patrick Roy made the save. I was in good position to see the play and the puck momentarily disappeared under Roy.

Just as I went to blow the whistle to call for a stoppage of play and an offensive zone faceoff for Boston, the puck squirted free and Geoff Courtnall poked it in the net. The goal light went on, the sellout crowd and Bruins began to celebrate.

Now I had to be the bearer of bad news to the Bruins: the goal didn't count.

The NHL rulebook states that a referee has the discretion to blow play dead when the puck exits his view. It is the point when the referee DECIDES to blow the whistle -- and not when the whistle is blown, which happened simultaneously to Courtnall scoring in this case -- that is the determining factor for whether a goal is allowed or disallowed in a covered/loose puck scenario.

Truthfully, I made the decision to blow the whistle too hastily. If I had waited just a fraction of a second longer to make sure Roy maintained control of the puck, the goal would have counted. I learned a lesson that I carried through the rest of my career: take an extra moment if you need it.

The Bruins and the Boston fans were livid with me. I got an earful from coach Butch Goring and pretty much everyone on the Boston bench and the stands. I didn't take it personally. Look, if I had been a player or coach on that bench, I'd have reacted the same way to the quick whistle and called myself every filthy name in the Book of Filthy Names (which, rumor has it, is soon to be published on Kindle).

The fact that the game ultimately ended in a tie, rather than a Bruins victory, made me the unwanted focus after the game. I was skewered in the Boston newspapers for the first time -- not the last -- but I willingly stood in front of reporters and explained my ruling the same way I did to the Boston bench.

Here's a fact of life about officiating : a referee can explain the rulebook ruling until he's blue in the face, but the emotion of the game is always going to take over.

I have seen the game from all sides. When I legitimately, flat out made the wrong call, no one felt worse about it than I did. I could eat crow and be man enough to say I messed up. That went a long way toward my acceptability. In this instance, I did not make the wrong call but I made too hasty of a decision, and therein was the difference.

At any rate, that crazy night in Boston was the first of many crazy nights to come over the next 17 years. As NHL "opening nights" go, mine was about as unusual and eventful as it gets. Truth is stranger than fiction.


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 HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.