About two hours ago, I received a phone call from a hockey official I assigned to work a game in the northeastern U.S., where the winter has been brutal and there is yet more snow in the forecast. He called to ask me if it was OK if he made an early arrival and got reimbursed for a hotel stay.
"Of course it's OK," I said. "Just get there safely. I'm not going to put you at risk over $100 or whatever."
Having been in this sport for 40 years and involved in officiating since the 1980s, I have been to a couple of funerals for guys who didn't make it to games while trying to fight the elements. Today's blog headline might be a pun -- a rather weak one, I admit -- but there is nothing funny about jeopardizing someone's safety in the name of saving a few dollars.
My conversation this morning took me back to my own early days an official. In the winter of 1985-86, I was assigned to officiate an American Hockey League game in Baltimore. I got the assignment while home in Boston and I got a plane ticket from my bosses.
At the time I got the assignment, a vicious nor'easter was sweeping up the east coast. The storm was blasting Baltimore with massive amounts of snow -- so much that the airport was closed -- and was making its way to New England, where there was even more snow in the forecast than in the Middle Atlantic states.
I spoke with my father, Bill Stewart Sr., about my conundrum: I couldn't get to Baltimore on my scheduled flight. Meanwhile, if I delayed leaving Boston, I would get snowed in there. Somehow I had to stay ahead of the weather at home and avoid the worst of the storm in Baltimore.
My father always had sage advice to offer. He came through for me yet again. As a long time official and coach, he knew the local train schedules like the back of his hand. He recommended that I take an overnight train from Boston -- departing before the storm hit full-force -- and to get a hotel in Baltimore (arriving after the worst of the storm had passed my destination).
So that's what I did. When I got to my hotel in Baltimore, I called my officiating supervisor, Lou Mascio, who was slated to be at the game.
"Paul!" he said.
"Lou!" I replied. "Happy new year."
"Happy new year to you, too," he said. "Um, where are you?"
"I'm in Baltimore."
He was amazed "Really? How did you manage that?! I'm in Boston. I'm snowed in."
"Lou," I said. "Don't worry about a thing tonight. I've got it all under control."
I worked the sparsely attended game, which went fine. Afterwards, I returned my unused plane ticket and sent my train ticket and hotel receipt to my boss, Bryan Lewis (then heading the NHL's officiating development program, later appointed the director of NHL officiating after the death of John McCauley).
Not long thereafter, I got a call from Lewis.
"We're not paying for it," he said. "Who gave you permission to take a train?"
"Bryan," I said. "The airport was closed."
"Logan Airport was open," he said flatly.
"Yeah, but BWI was closed," I said. "This was the best way -- really the only way -- to do it. Are you seriously going to force me to pay all this from my own pocket?"
You needed to ask permission first," he said. "You didn't. So we're not going to pay for it."
I went over Lewis' head, directly to NHL officiating director McCauley. John was far more sympathetic when I told him what happened.
"Taking a train sounds like good foresight to me," he said. "Nice job."
"It was my dad who came up with the idea, not me," I replied. "Give him the credit."
"OK, well don't worry about the reimbursement, McCauley said. "l''ll take care of it."
John did more than that.... he not only made sure I didn't have to pay for the trip, he also kept me separated from Lewis. I didn't see or talk to him again until John died in 1989 and Lewis took over as the NHL's head of officiating.
Throughout my life and career, I have always tried to pay forward the things that John McCauley did for me. In times of tough decisions, I ask myself what my father would do and what John would do. Today's phone call from the official who works for me was an easy decision to make.
The guy simply wants to work and has a right to do so safely. Covering a hotel room is a no-brainer in that circumstance.
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.