Make a Decision About Their Decision
A long, long time ago, when I was a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, I was sat out by coach Bob Crocker for an entire hockey season. Didn't dress for a single game, didn't fit in with most of my teammates. In my heart of hearts, I still held a dream of playing professional hockey but the already long odds sure weren't getting any better.
At the time, I was a rink attendant at the Class of 1923 Rink, where the Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers played. I've said this before: The Flyers players -- Barry Ashbee, Bob "the Hound" Kelly, Dave Schultz, Terry Crisp, Rick MacLeish, Ed van Impe, Joe Watson and others -- and coach Fred Shero were kinder and more encouraging to me than my own team.
I was down in the dumps about my situation; maybe feeling a little sorry for myself. The Hound gave me some advice.
"Paul, your coach made a decision but YOU have to make a decision about his decision," Kelly said.
Those simple words of advice from Bob provided one of the best professional and personal life lessons I ever learned. Do you just accept someone telling you that you're not good enough and you don't belong? Do you wallow in self-pity and feel bitter? Or do you use the rejection as motivation?
I kept at it. It was also Bob Kelly -- who was far from the most gifted talent but played 837 games in the NHL with two Stanley Cup rings, a Cup-winning goal in 1975 and a pair of seasons where he scored 22 or more goals despite usually playing on the lower end of the lineup -- who gave me the advice I followed to break into the professional game when no one had been scouting me.
He told me to look in The Hockey News at the standings in the minor leagues, contact the last-place team in the lowest league and ask for a tryout. From there, I could work my way up. So that's what I did. I contacted the Binghamton/ Broome Dusters, who were in last place in the infamous old NAHL (North American Hockey League), and was given a tryout. I sure as hell knew my goal scoring wasn't going to get me to the NHL. But my toughness just might.
My tryout with the Dusters went well. I made the team for the rest of the season. Had 42 fights and 273 PIM in 46 games. I played defense. I played left wing. I'd have cleaned the locker room had I been asked.
Bottom line was this: I had a foot in the door. Eventually, I worked my way up to where I played in the World Hockey Association and then the NHL. I am the only former University of Pennsylvania player who played in the NHL. I also finished my degree at Penn and graduated.
During my refereeing career in the NHL, I was a fast-rising young official when the late John McCauley was the director of officiating. After John's passing, I was constantly at odds with his successor. He'd have liked nothing more than to get me to quit and was always looking for an excuse to fire me. At my lowest points, I again recalled Bob Kelly's advice, and I made a decision about my boss's decision: I wasn't going away. I refereed 1,010 games before retiring.
My way of thanking the Hound for his encouragement has been to pay it forward: I've repeated his words to a host of aspiring young players and officials when things aren't going their way, including my own kids.
I've even said it to some officials whom I had to take out of the mix in an administrative or supervisory role: This is my decision, and I'm sticking to it. But you can make a decision about my decision and prove me wrong. I hope you do.
All I know is this: Anyone can do what I did. There was no secret to it, except hard work and dedication to chasing a dream. If someone at work or in your sport league who holds a position of authority over you makes an unfavorable decision that affects you, you still have the power to make a decision about their decision. Do you just accept it? Do you let it get you down, and give in to despair? Do you fight City Hall and lose? Or do you adjust your game plan and double down on your motivation?
A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, 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.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.