A hockey Hall of Famer reflects on his time starting fights as a player and breaking them up as a ref.
One day during his senior year at Penn, while driving the Zamboni and sharpening skates at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink, Paul Stewart C’76 struck up a conversation with some players on the Philadelphia Flyers, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions who practiced at the arena.
Stewart was struggling to get on the ice as a senior, playing just three games and feeling like an afterthought in the coaching staff’s plans. When he shared his plight with Bob Kelly, the notorious member of the “Broad Street Bullies” advised Stewart that what mattered most for his future wasn’t his coach’s opinion, but Stewart’s belief in himself.
“I took his advice,” Stewart says. “I picked the worst team in the worst league. … They needed bodies—and they needed muscle.”
Stewart’s professional hockey journey started shortly after that conversation with a $14 bus ticket to Binghamton, New York, in December 1975, to play for an obscure minor league outfit—setting him on a path to become the only Penn alum to play in the National Hockey League. But that was not the end. He went on to become the first American to referee more than 1,000 NHL regular-season games, was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, and is now spinning his hockey career into a business that has taken him around the world.
A born raconteur, Stewart pivoted from hockey to storytelling with a weekly blog, a 2018 memoir titled Ya Wanna Go?, and a children’s book, A Magical Christmas for Paul Stewart (the proceeds of which go to the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and Ice Hockey in Harlem).
Despite his shifts drying up as an upperclassman on the Quakers’ varsity hockey team (which was dropped in 1978, shortly after his graduation), his memories of Penn don’t focus on what he missed. Instead, he fondly recalls a Russian history class with Alexander Riasanovsky—upon which he’d later draw as the director of officiating in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League—as well as his time working the door at Smokey Joe’s (where his picture still hangs on the wall).
“I was grateful that [Penn] took me in and they gave me something I wanted,” says Stewart, who turned down interest from Boston College (for hockey) and Lafayette (for football). “I wanted an Ivy League education, because I grew up in Boston and I had to listen to all the crap they hoisted on me from all those Harvard guys.”
Desperate to play hockey somewhere during his senior year, Stewart trucked it up to Binghamton the day of his last fall-semester exam in 1975. (He finished his graduation requirements the following summer.) The Broome County Dusters of the North American Hockey League needed muscle, and Stewart was willing to oblige. In 46 games in 1975–76, he accounted for three goals, four assists … and a record 273 penalty minutes. That’s an average of one major fighting penalty per game. On his first shift, he got a souvenir of 23 stitches. Sewn up, Stewart finished the game.
“It was the movie Slap Shot every day,” Stewart says, referencing the 1977 cult classic about minor league hockey hijinks. Stewart—who was actually an extra in the movie, earning $500 and a script signed by star Paul Newman—carved out a niche as an enforcer that would make any Slap Shot character proud. It got him to training camp with the New York Rangers in 1976 before he returned to Binghamton, where he racked up 540 penalty minutes in 116 games over two seasons. The following year, he rose to the World Hockey Association, first with the Edmonton Oilers, then two seasons with the Cincinnati Stingers. He often returned to Philadelphia in the summers to train, learning aikido and boxing with Joe Frazier and Marvin Hagler.
Stewart got the call to the NHL in 1979, debuting at the Boston Garden with the old Quebec Nordiques against the Boston Bruins, racking up 27 penalty minutes and getting into three fights in his hometown. He lasted 21 games in the NHL, scoring two goals during that 1979–80 season. Though his playing career continued through 1983, he never got back to the big league.
“I used my ability to fight just like a plumber uses a wrench,” he says. “It was a tool. It bought me the ice time I needed.”
Retirement posed a challenge. As punishing as life in the minors could be, it provided structure. While Stewart disavowed the “goon” label, he understood his role within the on-ice code: if you messed with one of Stewart’s teammates, you’d have to deal with him.
But with his hockey career over, his marriage in trouble, and a steady paycheck gone, Stewart was at another crossroads. “I went through a slump after playing,” he says. “I could’ve gone to drugs and drinking and gone stupid. Instead, I started coaching high school hockey and became a police officer. I was trying to find a niche.”
While searching, he dipped into his family’s past. His grandfather, Bill Stewart, had been a Major League Baseball umpire for 21 years, calling four World Series. (A fellow US Hockey Hall of Famer, he was the first American-born coach to win the Stanley Cup, with Chicago, in 1938.) His father, Bill Jr., refereed college football, baseball, and hockey, working games at Franklin Field and at 19 editions of the Beanpot college hockey tournament in Boston.
When Paul sought a life preserver, he reached for a whistle. “Sports wasn’t just an afterschool event for the Stewarts,” he says. “It was the way we made our living.”
Stewart started out reffing eight-year-olds for five dollars a game. He attended the NHL’s refereeing school, rocketing up the ranks on the strength of his skating ability and hockey mentality. He made his NHL debut in 1986 (again in Boston, where he was pressed into service when another ref got injured) and ended up logging more than 1,000 games before retiring in 2003, helming two Canada Cup finals, 49 Stanley Cup playoff games, and two All-Star Games.
It might seem incongruous that someone who made a career flouting the rules would then administer them. But the tasks are similar. As an enforcer, Stewart sought to keep opponents from going after his teammates. Officiating, while more dispassionate, still held the goal of safety and letting the game shine.
All told, Stewart lasted 28 years on the ice as a player and a ref—through a 1998 bout with colon and liver cancer (he later survived a brain tumor and melanoma) and a constant battering of his body. He now stands (with an artificial hip) as the only American that both played and refereed in the NHL.
“I loved being on the ice,” he says. “When I first put on that pair of skates and I went around the rink, falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
—Matthew De George