A Christmas Story: My Father’s Greatest Gift
My family never had much money when I was growing up in Boston but I would not have changed my childhood for anything in the world. These were very happy years of my life, and I had a wonderful family and a lot of special times.
Every year at Christmastime especially, I think often of my late father, Bill Stewart, Jr. and I try to pay forward the many great things he did for his family, his friends and even for strangers. My father’s caring and kindness was not confined to activities around the hockey rink, but hockey was one of the things that we bonded over from the time I was young.
I grew up in and around the Boston Arena (now Matthews Arena) on what is now part of the campus of Northeastern University. That was my playground for much of the year. It was where I learned to skate, where I worked some odd jobs and also where I would go to watch my father referee games and take in other events at the facility for free.
I used to make a couple dollars a month doing odd jobs around the arena, helping out the men who ran the skate shop and the snack bar. The latter guy was a bookie on the side. He would sometimes disappear for long stretches to take some people’s last-minute bets while I, before my 10th birthday, was left in charge of getting customers their french fries, burgers or hot chocolate.
With some change in my pocket or maybe a dollar given to me by my dad, I would sometimes go to the Windsor Tap across the street for a hot turkey sandwich. It was not uncommon at that time for me to run into athletes and performers who worked at the arena. When I was not on the ice during my childhood, chances were still pretty good that I could be found somewhere in or around the building.
My first skates were a pair of hand-me-down white figure skates. What I really wanted, of course, was my own pair of hockey skates — no toe pick, smoother acceleration for hockey purposes, not to mention more masculine — but I was glad just to have skates of any kind.
In December of 1962 or 1963, the owner of the skate shop asked me to do him a favor. He told me that he was giving a pair of hockey skates to his nephew for Christmas, and asked if I could help him out.
“He’s your age and right about the same size as you,” he said. “Would you just try these on to see how they fit?”
“OK,” I said.
I looked at the skates longingly: two-tone brown, stiffer than the figure skates I had grown accustomed to, and a perfect fit for my feet. I hated to take them off, but I did my best not to let on that I suddenly felt a bit envious of his nephew.
Christmas morning came. My family sat around, and the kids opened their gifts. I got a few small toys and perhaps some socks or a new scarf.
Do you remember that scene in “A Christmas Story” where little Ralphie’s father has one last surprise gift from Santa Claus that he’s hidden in the room? He calls his son’s attention to it after everything else has been opened and then takes in his son’s joy at receiving the air rifle that he’d coveted.
I could relate to that scene very personally.
My father said to me, “Paul, what it is that over there?”
“Where?” I said.
He pointed. It was then I saw one more box, which had been deliberately semi-hidden when he and my mother put out all the gifts.
You guessed it: The gift was my first genuine pair of hockey skates; the very ones I had tried on in the skate shop!
Many, many years later, when I was a NHL referee, I spent some time near Christmas with my dad. Every year, we would go together to get our Christmas tree, and pick out the biggest one. This year, I bought a small but beautiful one of about five feet tall.
We decorated the tree and then sat together on the couch, sharing a drink and talking.
“Do you remember the Christmas when you got the skates?” he asked me.
“Of course!” I said.
“I want you to know,” he said. “That year was the best Christmas I ever had.”
“Me, too,” I said.
That was our final Christmastime together. Bill Stewart Jr. died on Dec. 6, 1986. In the years since his passing, I have tried to bring to others the joy my own father brought to me and to aspire to the way he treated others with kindness and compassion.
I’ve seen thousands of coaches in action and countless referees. I reffed 1,010 NHL games. In my humble opinion, my father stands out as one of the best coaches ever at any sport, at any level, because he understood coaching is selfless. As a high school and collegiate hockey referee, he was as good as anyone I ever saw in the NHL. He was also a school teacher and believed in his heart of hearts that it was his duty to uphold a noble profession.
My dad treated every kid like his own. He knew everything about everyone who played for him. He involved himself in their lives and it wasn’t for devious purposes. It was to help them, make their lives better and give them a better chance for future success.
Coaching, officiating, and everything my dad did had a higher meaning, a higher calling. He had no sexual agendas or strategies to line his pockets. I love the saying, “You were happier when he arrived than when he left.” I always thought that was a marvelous thing to say about someone. It certainly applied to my dad.
When you care for people like my dad did, they tend to return the same compassion. Not long before my father died, I stood in line at Boston’s Logan Airport and noticed actor Leonard Nimoy — Star Trek’s Mr.Spock — who was one of my father’s students in school.
“Just to let you know, whenever my dad sees you on TV he elbows me and says, ‘Now that’s an English High kid who did well for himself,'” I told Nimoy.
“Who’s your dad?” Nimoy asked.
I told him. He smiled warmly.
“Did Coach Stewart ever tell you how good of an athlete I was?” he grinned.
“Now you’re trying to find out if my dad ever exaggerated about you,” I replied.
Nimoy chuckled softly.
“I’ll tell you what my father told me about you,” I continued. “My dad told me that you were a nice Jewish kid from Dorchester who was the son of a barber. You who showed up to gym class on time, always wore your uniform, never bothered anybody, and you were barely adequate at track.”
Nimoy threw his head back and laughed. “Yeah, that’s your father all right! How is he?”
“He’s not well,” I said somberly. “He doesn’t have long to live.”
The smile faded from Nimoy’s face. He told me to let my father know he was in the famed actor’s thoughts. Then, thinking for a moment, he asked if I would deliver a written message to my dad.
“Of course,” I said.
I handed Mr Nimoy one of my business cards. He wrote, “Coach Stewart: It was always a pleasure, Leonard Nimoy.”
People have asked me where I get my work ethic. It was from my grandfather and father. My father was as equally hard working as he was selfless. Both my father and grandfather were men of many hats (coaching, reffing, scouting, mentoring).
They taught me something essential at a young age: It’s not how many hats you wear, it’s how well you wear them. They took pride in performing all their jobs at the highest level possible.
Dad reffed college games each Saturday. He always was on the move. He reffed a football game at Cornell one sunny Saturday in the early 1960s when the Big Red had Pete Gogolak, the first soccer-style placekicker who later starred for the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.
I spent that afternoon chasing Gogolak’s field goals and extra points. I always either volunteered as the ball boy or worked the chains. When that football game ended, dad and I walked to the station wagon, opened the trunk, and pulled out the Coca-Cola cooler, which came with us on every road trip. Inside were sandwiches and drinks my mother had packed. When we finished eating, my dad looked down at his watch.
“It’s almost 5 p.m. — we better get going,” he said, throwing his football referee bag into the back of the car, then reaching in and pulling out his hockey bag.
Putting on a different hat, my dad walked into historic Lynah Rink and dressed to ref the Cornell hockey game. I served as stick boy.
Being the son of Bill Stewart Jr., I certainly lived an interesting, somewhat unpredictable, and magical childhood in which I almost always was learning some sort of lesson in life or sports. I almost always stood three feet from my dad, soaking in lessons about sports and life while the water boy at his football games, the stick boy at his hockey games, and the bat boy at his baseball games.
I chased foul balls for a nickel a piece during chilly spring baseball games. My life revolved from one sports season to the next sports season, from stadium to arena, from baseball diamond to baseball diamond. Sports weren’t something that happened after school. It was the Stewart family’s way of life, passed down from generation to generation. Getting involved with and learning about as many sports as possible was what my family did. It was our family business.
My dad remained open to learning anything from anybody. He picked everyone’s brain. After reffing a football game at UConn in ’64, he asked then-assistant Huskies coach Lou Holtz, who went on to win a Division I national title with Notre Dame in 1988, to send him some film of the UConn offense. Tuesday morning the film sat on my dad’s desk at Boston English High. He watched it at home Tuesday night with me sitting beside him.
“You see this?” my dad asked me, pointing at the small projector screen. “I’m going to put these plays into English’s offense.”
A couple of weeks later, English used an offense no other Massachusetts high school ever had seen before. Bill Stewart’s English High boys began clobbering the competition.
My dad taught me how to look at games in a certain way — to watch the whole field — which was an invaluable lesson that I used growing up playing football, hockey, and baseball, and eventually when I turned to reffing. When we watched his team’s game film together, he showed me exactly what certain players did wrong and what they did right. He always scribbled notes on cue cards and sometimes even stopped the film to test my knowledge.
“What did you think of that play?” he’d ask.
He expected a specific answer — such as how the quarterback didn’t see an open receiver downfield but instead only looked right and threw right. He almost always analyzed games — no matter what level. He pointed out certain aspects and forms of great NFL players such as Nick Buoniconti, Gino Cappelletti, and Larry Csonka, telling me that was the way to tackle, block, or catch.
All his lessons certainly made me more astute and gave me an edge as I became more serious about sports — and along the way his lessons shaped me into a respectful man. My dad used to say that he taught to coach and he coached by teaching.
As an adult, I have come to understand and share that joy of giving that was central to my father’s character. I know of no better way to honor him.
It warms my heart that my own sons, McCauley and Maxwell, have inherited the same love for hockey that I, my father and my grandfather had. Last year before the holidays, we collected some hockey equipment and donated it to the inner city hockey foundation that is operated by Willie O’Ree; so that underprivileged youngsters can have their very own hockey equipment that they otherwise never could.
If I am half the man and father that Bill Stewart was, I will have been a success in my life. To my dad, being giving and kind wasn’t something reserved for just the holiday season. However, the holidays were a perfect time to show even a little extra kindness and compassion.
There is not a day that I do not think about something my father did or said. The holiday season does not fill me with sorrow, although this was the time of year he passed away. Rather, I hear his voice a lot this time of year, and it reminds that he’ll always be with me.
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 an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart’s writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.