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Bryan Watson and I played together in the WHA for the Cincinnati Stingers. We were teammates for just a few months. During that time, we roomed together in a hotel, The Shiloh Inn, in the downtown.
I was up and down from the majors to the minors as the coach, Floyd Smith, was trying to wear me down and get me to quit over a personal dispute. No such luck, Floyd.
"Keep sending the checks," I said. "They have post offices here, too."
I was my own agent and negotiated a one-way deal where I made $52,000 for the season; a grand a week whether I was in the WHA or playing for John Cunniff while eating fried clams on Cape Cod playing for The Cape Cod Freedoms.
Bryan, or "Bugsy" as we all knew him, took me in as both a teammate and a friend when I got recalled to Cincy. One day, The Pirates were in town to play the Reds. Bugsy was friends with many of the Pirates players, having played in Pittsburgh for the Penguins.
"Come on down to Riverfront with me for batting practice," he said.
I had just had a late night, so I had to turn down the invitation.
About twenty minutes later, there was a knock on my door. I looked thru the peep hole and saw THE biggest dude that I had ever seen. His muscles had musckes.
"Hey Stew Cat," he said. "I'm Willie Stargell. I came to take you to Riverfront."
THAT was an offer I couldn't refuse. Down to Riverfront Stadium we went. I met Manny Sanguillen, John Candeleria, Duffy Dyer, Tim Foli, Rennie Stennett and many of the other teammates.
Later, Bugsy, Mark Messier, Jamie Hislop, Billy Gilligan, Byron Shutt and I were walking in downtown toward Fountain Square. It was just after my birthday. The boys had bought lobsters and we were going some place to boil them. I had the shopping bag when all of a sudden, Bugsy suckered me in the stomach. Down I went. Lobsters were crawling all over the sidewalk.
"Always be ready, Cat!" he said cheerfully. "Happy Birthday!"
Years later, Bugsy was scouting for Edmonton. He had coached there and was still with the club. I had just reffed a Calgary/Edmonton game that Bugsy must have watched on TV. That night my phone rang, It was Bugsy calling me from someplace.
"Cat, I was watching you on TV tonight. What's wrong with your hair? It's black on the bottom and white up top. You look like a damn skunk," he said.
I responded by saying I was on chemo and my hair, my finger and toe nails, and a few other parts of my body were not as they used to be.
"OK, well, get it cut and colored. Look like you used to because, right now, now you look like sh-t, " he said.
A day later I was in Winnipeg for my next assignment. It was cold at Portage and Main so I walked the city thru the underground. There was a sign that read "Cut and Color, $35: No appointment needed."
Following Bugsy's advice and paying in Canadian dollars, which made the process practically free, I got my hair cut and colored to the chestnut brown that I grew up with.
The next night, the Calgary Flames, who had seen me two nights before, were playing the Jets.
At the end of the first period, tough guy -- and genuine off-ice good guy -- Sandy McCarthy skated across the ice and stopped next to me.
"Stewy, something's different. Did you do something to your hair?" he asked.
"Yes, I did. Got it cut and colored. What do you think?"
Sandy replied, "The cut looks good but the color is running down your neck!"
I couldn't wait to talk to Bugsy and tell him it was all his fault.
All kidding aside, I always looked forward to see him. On of my pleasures as a referee besides skating was traveling, seeing friends, making new friends, showing the rookies the ropes, playing a little golf. I ate well: Il Vagabondo's and Smith and Walensky's in NYC, Peter Luger's in Brooklyn, Benito's Cafe de la Paix in Quebec City, Little Italy's Kitchen by LAX, The Black Whale, by LAX, The Palm in Beverly Hills, usually with Howard and Karen Baldwin, Cin Cin's in Vancouver with Susan the Bartender and, in DC, Armand's Pizza in Old Town, Alexandria on King St.
Upstairs was The Penalty Box Cafe owned by none other than Bugsy Watson. I got a call one day from Bryan asking me for two autographed pictures to display in his restaurant.
"You know I only display pictures of my old teammates?" he said.
"Sure. Ref or player?" I asked.
Referee, of course! You're a better ref than player."
I gave him two photos.
Well, that's OK. My photo was going to hang out in the company of Gordie Howe, Gretz and many of Bugsy's teammates from all the teams he played for or coached. Lots of players there, but I would be the only referee in this sports hall of fame with pepperoni and anchovies.
After the game in Landover, the old rink, we motored back and stopped at Bugsy's. I was, of course bragging that my pictures were hanging with all the stars that they saw as they climbed the stairs.
Looking around, I didn't see any pictures. I asked the bartender if Bryan was coming in.
"Yes, the pizza and beer is on him," he said.
"Where are my two pictures?" I asked.
"Bugsy knew you'd ask," the bartender said. "Go down the hall, go in the door on the left. You'll see them."
Down we went until we were right in front of the men's room door. OK, I can live with that. In we went and there I was. Hanging in urinal 1 and urinal 2 were photos of yours truly.
Back to the bar I went.
"Kinda funny," I said.
The bartender grinned. "Everyone who goes in there thinks it's funny, too. Oh, and no one ever misses now and the bathroom is a lot cleaner."
Rest in peace, Bugsy. Life won't be as much fun without you.
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