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Tough Conversations are Part of Being a Leader

July 3, 2021, 10:08 AM ET [1 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

As a teacher, a coach or an administrator, I try to borrow from "the Shero Sandwich" method of providing feedback. Too often, there is either just generic praise or criticism of something a person does wrong.

Legendary coach Fred Shero, who was a man of few words and almost never raised his voice in anger, had a tried-and-true method of communicating when he called players into his office. It was usually brief, by design.

He'd start with something positive, and specific. Then he got to the meat -- the specific topic he wanted to address, of which he could be quite blunt, although calm in demeanor. Then he'd close with something else that was positive.

In many cases, I have seen leagues -- right up through the NHL -- fail on the coaching side with their officials. I'm not going to name names here but I've seen officials get hired by the NHL and then not improve beyond the point of their development at which they were when initially came aboard. It's rather like a player who gets drafted by a team who never gets any better than he was as a junior or collegiate player. He may have been fine in those leagues, but it takes development to become an NHLer, especially for the long haul.

Sometimes this happens because the prospect just doesn't have what it takes: the right commitment and work ethic, the willingness to be coached. Sometimes it can be the effects of a career-altering injury. Just as often, though, there are coaching failures along the way. Whether it's a player or an official, their coaches have to put them in position to succeed rather than setting them up for failure.

Generic praise ("Hey, great job out there! OK, have a good night.") is useless. So is haranguing someone over screwing up without showing -- not just telling -- what can and must be done better. The tough conversation often goes down better and gets results if it starts with something positive and then ends with a word of encouragement. Unfortunately, I've seen far too many promising officials fall by the wayside because they aren't truly coached, and receive only the generic praise or harangues right until they receive their release from the league because they never developed.

In officiating, every promising potential pro who falls by the wayside is a blow to our profession. We are working to cultivate a deeper pool of candidates but the coaching has be on the on the mark throughout to turn a prospect into a pro who will stand the test of time.

As a coach and an assignor, I try to set very clear rules. Some of those rules are "no exceptions, no excuses." One of the most important of those standards is (pardon my all caps here) BE IN SHAPE. I cannot, and will not, compromise on that. It is a matter of safety as well as quality control.

I have had officials tell me, "Well, I'm just 220 right now. I can still work." The answer to that question is, "Maybe for someone else, but you won't be working for me." If an official is not in shape and can't keep with the play, they are putting the players -- and themselves -- at risk.

These conversations are no fun. I hate when they happen. But there's no two ways around it.

While there are many aspects of my job that I love, there is one that I utterly dread. I hate it when I have to let an official go. I know that I am squashing someone's livelihood and dreams. Again, I do it when necessary, but it is a rotten feeling.

Inevitably, I think of something that Gen. George Patton is alleged to have said upon seeing the rows and rows of white crosses marking the final resting place of our fallen troops.

"If I were a better general there wouldn't be so many of these men here," Patton said.

As an executive, a supervisor and teacher, it is your responsibility to provide the people under your leadership with the best possible chance at success. While I always give that pursuit my absolute best effort, there is always a bit of self-critique when someone falls short. Was there more I could have done? Was there something different I could do? Did I make the expectations clear enough?

In the case of conditioning, though, I am extra vigilant about it. There are things I can coach around and things that I cannot. Everyone in the role of assignor, supervisor or teacher has to set firm expectations in that area. If not, you are jeopardizing the game.


A Class of 2018 inductee to 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. Today, Stewart is the director of hockey officiating for the ECAC. Visit his official website at YaWannaGo.com.
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