May 16, 2012

From NEHJ: Making the right calls

By Jesse Connolly

As every hockey fan knows by now, there is no sporting event that can come within a country mile of matching the intensity of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every spring, 16 teams lay it all on the line in their quest to capture hockey’s Holy Grail. With that comes plenty of pressure. 

Paul Stewart officiated more than 1,000 NHL games from 1986 to 2003, and refereed 49 playoff games. (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Play the hero and you’ll be deified for all eternity. Play the goat and you’ll have a black mark on your hockey résumé for the rest of your career.

But oftentimes we forget about the individuals that are out on the ice for every postseason game who are under just as much pressure and receive a wealth of scrutiny from both teams and each of their fan-bases: the referees.

Paul Stewart (Dorchester, Mass.), who officiated more than 1,000 NHL games from 1986 to 2003, got a kick out of taking flak from anyone willing to chew him out — especially on the eve of the postseason.

“I always laugh about all that extra heat. In late March and early April, the players are always saying, ‘This is a big game tonight,’” Stewart said, noting he gave it right back to anyone who tried to get in his head. “Now all the sudden I’ve got to show up because you didn’t show up in October? I always just laughed at them. It never bothered me.”

One thing that never bothered Stewart either was the notion that referees were given different directives come playoff time. He strived to call things the same way in April and beyond as he would at any point in the season.

“That’s maybe the reason why I didn’t work the finals. I never paid attention to what they were telling me anyways,” said Stewart, who refereed 49 playoff games in his career. “I refereed games the way I felt they should’ve been refereed. I certainly conformed to rule changes and policy and procedure changes, but not necessarily when it came to giving someone a bit more leeway or looking out for someone like a (Wayne) Gretzky or something along those lines.

“That part never really entered my thinking because I never thought that way. I would referee the game and I didn’t give a damn who was in the building.”

Stewart not only didn’t give a hoot about who was in attendance, he wasn’t at all concerned with the possibility of a crowd 20,000 strong hating him for a call or non-call during a pivotal game — especially if the act of diving was involved.

“Well, I’m not a fan of anybody that cheats and tries to show up the game,” said Stewart, who played in 21 NHL games for the Quebec Nordiques during the 1979-80 season. “When a guy makes an illegal act and tries to help his team along, he doesn’t need to be chastised, but I don’t think he should be rewarded either. I have a hard time when a guy dives, goes back to the bench and everyone slaps him on the back, but when it’s done against them, they don’t like it. I hate the hypocrisy of it. I think true hockey champions are honest.”

Honest certainly describes Stewart’s reaction to those who tried to show him up by throwing themselves to the ice.

“I just wouldn’t buy into the crap,” he said. “I used to actually skate by them and tell them to get up, or that I’d skate over their face. They knew where I was coming from. I wasn’t shy.”

One player in particular jumps out in Stewart’s memory as having constant “gravity issues” on the ice: former Canadien Claude Lemieux.

“I didn’t give him a penalty, but I skated over to (Montreal coach) Pat Burns, and he started arguing with me,” Stewart recalled. “I said to him, ‘You either coach him, or I’m going to dump him. He pulls that (stuff) with me again, and he’s out of here.’ And you know what? I didn’t have any other problems with (Lemieux). He was a guy that tried to intimidate you by the crowd. There wasn’t a building big enough in the National Hockey League to intimidate me. I was afraid of nothing and no one.”

What did matter more than anything else to Stewart — who now serves as ECAC Hockey’s director of officiating — was being respected for doing what he thought was right, night in and night out.

“A lot of people didn’t understand that the most important thing for me was to keep earning that respect and never compromise what I knew was my main mission, which was to be right all the time,” Stewart said. “I had to be right. I always dwelled on trying to be right and making good calls. That was more important to me than what other people’s opinions were, whether it was Scotty Bowman, Harry Sinden or Steve Yzerman, or anyone else who could be critical. I never took it personally.”

If they’re lucky, the group of officials tasked with handling the 2012 NHL playoffs will trust their own judgment and possess as much resolve as Stewart.

The stat

Keith Yandle is one of just three NHL defensemen to total more than 100 points over the past two seasons.

Quick a Vezina finalist

Alongside Pekka Rinne of the Predators and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick was named as one of the three finalist for the Vezina Trophy on April 25. The 26-year-old Hamden, Conn., native led the NHL with 10 shutouts. He ranked fifth in both save percentage (.929) and wins (35), while his 1.95 goals-against average was the second-best mark by any goaltender.

Quick was humbled by the nomination, but the netminder still had his sights set on a bigger goal when he learned of the honor.

“That’s not the trophy that I set out to win nine months ago or whenever. We still have a shot at the other one, and that’s what we’re working on right now,” said Quick, whose eighth-seeded Kings knocked off the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks in a five-game, opening-round series.

“To be put in that category is a tremendous honor. It’s something that a lot of hard work was put into and it goes to credit the way these guys played in front of me.”

Despite his effort to deflect the credit, there’s no denying that — among the three Vezina candidates — Quick was under the most pressure to be at his best on a nightly basis, because Los Angeles’ offense virtually was anemic until the final few months of the regular season.

“He’s saved our bacon more than once,” Kings center Colin Fraser told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s been our best player all year, consistently, and very deserving of it.”

Pacioretty for Masterton

Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty was named as one of the three finalists for the Masterton Trophy in April, which annually is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Pacioretty, of course, suffered a concussion and fractured vertebra on March 8, 2011, on a hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. He missed the final 15 games of the regular season and all of Montreal’s seven playoff games.

The New Canaan, Conn., native rebounded superbly with a breakout season, setting career-highs with 33 goals and 65 points for the Canadiens. Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson and Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul were the other two finalists.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com