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Power, Corruption and Abuse Take on Many Forms

November 4, 2021, 12:01 PM ET [4 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
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John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I will add to this notion that ambition and desire for glory, victory and money tends to make humankind forget its innate senses of decency, compassion and empathy. So does the fear of embarrassment or the belief that one has become above the risk of facing consequences.

Why did the Catholic Church go to such lengths to suppress the horrors of the sexual abuse scandals by ordained priests? Why did the once-revered Joe Paterno deliberately look the other way when he had knowledge of what Jerry Sandusky was doing? Why did the Chicago Blackhawks, including once-iconic head coach Joel Quenneville, help sweep the Brad Aldrich scandal under the rug back in 2010 and then lie about having knowledge of Aldrich's abuse of player Kyle Beach when the story finally went public a decade later?

Outside the realm of sexual abuse scandals, we can look at Richard Nixon's role in the Watergate break-in cover-up. His dishonesty and arrogance were the late former President's ultimate undoing. He neither ordered nor participated in the initial crime but once he became aware of it, he was deeply involved in ordering the cover-up and trying to hinder the investigation.

It all comes back to the same issues: Abuse of power. Loss of moral compass of what's right and wrong, whereby victory in sports (or other competitive endeavors) becomes more important than human lives. Desire to avoid public embarrassment by owning up to uncomfortable truths of having knowledge of immoral, abusive or illegal actions taking place under one's purview. The arrogance entitlement of someone in power feeling he or she can lie if questioned and get away with it forever. The loss -- or absence -- of empathy for the suffering of others caused not only by the initial harm done to them but of the complicit cover-ups that follow and of being the one accused of lying.

Where does the buck stop? It stops at the ones in power who put competitiveness and the desire for business as usual ahead of their humanity. It stops with those who shrug off their own responsibilities to vet those who report to them, and who have power over others a couple steps down in the power chain. It stops with those who turn a deliberately blind eye when there's clearly something wrong that's happening.

Specific to hockey, in the post-Graham James era -- long after we were forced to confront that the sport as a whole failed the likes of Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury (and had devastating off-ice consequences on the victims' lives) -- we have learned no lessons. The cycle went on all over again at the professional level in Chicago. Do we REALLY think that there haven't been other cases in the recent past that we're unaware of as the public-at-large? Do we REALLY think it's not going on right now at different levels?

If you believe that, you're sticking your head in the sand.

The abuse isn't always sexual nor does it need to involve capers on the level of intrigue and scale of Watergate. It goes on at micro-levels every single day both in hockey and society.

I'll speak from what I know: hockey. Every single day, at rinks across North America on both sides of the United States/Canada border, officials suffer from the most horrid abuse imaginable. It's at its worst at the youth levels from parents verbally (and sometimes even physically) assaulting officials but goes on right up the chain. We put signs up in the rinks at youth games that the officials are human beings, too, and we won't tolerate their abuse.

That's fine. But how much is that actually enforced? How often are there ACTUAL consequences if a complaint is filed with the league administrators or with clubs about abusive parents? About abusive coaches? Incidents with players?

On the hockey food chain, officials are at the bottom. The league administrators don't want to sanction their member teams over incidents involving officials unless it's so egregious that it gets widespread media coverage. The teams aren't inclined to rock the boat with the parents and coaches and players. Parents pay big money in fees for their kids to play. Coaches prioritize winning and skills development above humanity.

I'll relay a personal experience when I was in a supervisory capacity. I once had the parent of a player who was a candidate for a postseason award confront me in the hallway during a game. He was red-faced, telling me that the officials on the ice were out to get his son to prevent him from winning the award and demanding to know what I was going to do about it. I told him the truth: that no one "had it in" for his son. The parent got belligerent, threatening to fight me on the spot. I told him that was up to him to make the first move.

There was no physical confrontation. I reported the incident to the league. There were no consequences for the parent or for the program. However, there were sanctions against me as the supervisor for daring to take it up the ladder.

Morale among officials is at an all-time low. Recruitment has never been harder and retention is even worse. Why? Because the level of abuse just isn't worth it to more and more officials.The compensation doesn't make up for the dehumanization. The love of the game and call of duty to serve the sport erodes when the game doesn't have YOUR back or care much (if at all) about your well-being. Remember: abuse isn't always sexual or physical. The bruises and scars aren't always visible.

These are the ugly realities. We can either face and confront the abuses -- and demand consequences for the direct abusers and those in power who are complicit -- or we can continue to see the soul of our sport corrode.

I don't think this needs to be said, but I'll say it. I've given my life to hockey. Sacrificed my knees, my hips. Missed so much time with my family as part of the price to pay. Dealt with frustration, mean-spiritedness, short-sightedness and, in a few cases, downright incompetence of some who've had power over me.

Now, would I do it all again? Yes. The game has given a lot back to me and to my family. I have few regrets as far as I am personally concerned. The good things from hockey in my own life, playing career, officiating career and administrative career have outweighed the bad. I hope that anyone who has ever read my blog or read my book took that much away from it.

However, would I want my own two sons to go through the worst of what I experienced as the price to pay for pursuing in life what they love? I'm not sure, to be honest.

Would I ever want them to experience what Kyle Beach or Sheldon Kennedy or Theoren Fleury went through? HELL, NO! Not for a Stanley Cup. Not for millions of dollars. Not for fame or recognition. Not for ANYTHING.

For these reasons, I have lost all the respect I once had for Joel Quenneville just as I lost all the respect I once had for Joe Paterno. If you disagree with that sentiment, you know how to reach me.


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
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