NHL Referee Paul Stewart strides through the bowels of Madison Square Garden before a hockey game, doing one of the things he does best: working the crowd. Security guards, ticket takers, maintenance men, the Zamboni driver and team trainers all get a greeting and a bit of the blarney from Stewart. Suddenly Stewart spots New York Ranger general manager Phil Esposito. "Hey, Espo," he yells down the corridor, "how are you?"
Esposito's face lights up in recognition. "I can't believe it. I can't believe this guy's a referee," he says gleefully as he shakes Stewart's hand.
That sort of reaction is common among those who knew Stewart in his previous incarnation as one of pro hockey's designated hired guns, a player of limited skills who forged a modest career with his fists. After all, how many players who received an astonishing 1,242 penalty minutes in just 285 pro games have gone on to become upholders of law and order on ice? For that matter, what other referee has broken his nose 15 times and taken 800 stitches? No wonder Esposito is surprised.
Then again, how many pro hockey players learned their stuff at the exclusive Groton (Mass.) School and at the University of Pennsylvania? And how many graduates of those institutions hail from the Irish Catholic section of the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain? The fact is, Stewart has been fighting the odds and achieving the unexpected most of his life.
He comes at you, talking nonstop, with his piercing blue-green eyes flashing one moment, then suddenly softening into tears as he remembers someone who may have helped him through rough times in his life. Clearly, Stewart is a highly motivated man whose emotions can run to extremes. His unbridled belief in himself, combined with a penchant for self-promotion, has sometimes rankled people, but it is those qualities that have enabled him to accomplish as much as he has.
Stewart, 32, has always been scrappy. He was the third of four children. "He'd get into fights in the morning and then he'd come home to get cleaned up and have lunch with his mother," says his father, Bill, a retired high school administrator and athletic director. Paul recalls his first fight vividly: "I was in the first grade and at Halloween I had a Robin Hood costume with one of those hats with plumes. An eighth-grader took my hat and broke a feather. He shouldn't have done that. It was a nice hat. I kicked him right in the wrong spot, if you know what I mean. I just never have been afraid of anybody."
Nor has he been afraid to try anything, even if failure seemed probable. First, of course, he wasn't supposed to be at Groton, a tony prep school with a student body consisting in no small part of well-scrubbed, well-spoken young men with the blue blood of Lodges or Harrimans or Roosevelts in their veins, and most definitely not feisty fast-talking Irish Catholic kids named Stewart. Stewart wound up at Groton through his father's athletic connections there. Shortly after his arrival, one snotty Grottie told Stewart he wouldn't last until Christmas. But, with help from newfound friends and teachers such as Junie O'Brien, Stewart persevered. "Everybody saw the brash kid, but very few people knew how much he liked to read and how loyal he was and how much he cared about people," says O'Brien, who taught Stewart English literature.
Penn was another place Stewart wasn't supposed to be, but he had always aspired to an Ivy League college. He matriculated in the fall of 1972 and majored in Asian history, but most of his effort went into hockey. From the beginning, the other players on the team, almost all of them Canadian, had no idea how to take this American whose sole aim was to make the pros and whose attitude toward hockey was far more serious than anyone else's. A C+ student, Stewart also enjoyed taking karate lessons, pumping iron in the weight room and hanging around kibitzing with members of the Philadelphia Flyers, who practiced at the Penn rink. "The other guys wanted to drink beer and party all the time," says Stewart. "I'd go into the dressing room, and nobody would talk to me. I wasn't one of the guys. They all lived together in a house. They thought it was cool not to go to class." Says Bob Crocker, who was then the Penn coach and is now the assistant general manager of the Hartford Whalers, "They probably looked at Paul as a rah-rah hot-dog sort of guy. Maybe they thought of him as a braggart; he was certainly verbose. But he could always back up anything he said."
By Stewart's senior year, his situation had become unbearable. "Every day was an emotional wrench," he says. "I was such an outcast on that team. One day in practice I was standing in front of the net and this guy cross-checks me in the back of the neck. It cracked my third cervical vertebra. After three weeks, against the doctor's advice, I was ready to play again. In the dressing room before practice, I went up to the guy who had hit me and I said to him, Td just like to ask you why you hit me from behind with the stick. I mean, what did I ever do to you?' He said, 'Screw you, I'm not here to be friends with you.' "
Wrong answer. During the ensuing scrimmage, Stewart lined up his nemesis as he came around the net, took three or four good strides and hit him hard in the chest with the point of his shoulder. "I lifted him right off the ice," he remembers. "I knocked him backward, both elbows hit the edge of the dasher and he dislocated his clavicle and separated his shoulder." After taking on two of the fallen player's allies, Stewart yelled to the rest of the team, "Anybody else want to try me?" Later, alone, he cried. "I had tried everything I knew," he says with no hint of regret. "I just couldn't get along with those guys."