There is a long tradition in hockey of referees evening scores with players, says Paul Stewart, who spent 22 seasons in the old World Hockey Association and the NHL as a player and referee. He did it many times himself in his 18 years as a referee, Stewart says, and sometimes on behalf of other on-ice officials.
But the idea, Stewart said yesterday, was not to exact personal revenge for a slight. It was to cure a player from such unsportsmanlike behaviour as diving or rough play that went beyond even the NHL's liberal standard. Or it could be the addition of extra frontier justice if the referee thought the player did not learn his lesson from the league's punishment. Stewart said such treatment was also necessary sometimes to maintain the respect of the players.
The official side of the Stephane Auger-Alex Burrows incident ended yesterday when the NHL decided not to discipline Auger, the referee accused by the Vancouver Canucks' forward of carrying out a vendetta against him.
Auger worked last night's game between the Calgary Flames and the Pittsburgh Penguins after the league's director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, decided no punishment was warranted. Burrows was fined $2,500 (U.S.) for making the accusation.
But the unofficial side of this controversy, in which Burrows said Auger told him before a game Monday night that he would get even for what he saw as the player embarrassing him in a previous game, will linger for some time.
"I had plenty of run-ins with players," Stewart, 55, said in a telephone interview from his home near Boston. "But you don't let it get personal."
He was one of the league's most colourful referees until he retired in 2003 and is now an officiating supervisor for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Stewart was also on the other side of the equation as a professional player who earned his living with his fists.
After Monday's game, in which Burrows was given a questionable penalty that resulted in the game-winning goal for the Nashville Predators, the Canucks' forward made his accusation to the media.
And that, according to Stewart, violated one of hockey's unofficial rules.
"It's like that old expression, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," Stewart said. "You got an issue? Don't take it to the press."
Calgary Flames centre Craig Conroy agreed.
"It's like a tattletale. No one likes a tattletale," Conroy said of Burrows. "That's kind of what it looked like to me."
Stewart watched the video of Auger and Burrows skating around and talking before Monday's game. He said he does not think any direct threats were made. If so, Stewart said, there would have been an immediate reaction by the player, "but he never said anything until someone shoved a microphone in his face."
Stewart said any player hearing a direct threat would immediately tell his teammates and his coach. He used an example from his own playing career, when he was one of the rough-and-tumble WHA's more willing combatants with the Cincinnati Stingers during the 1978-79 season. Referee Bill Friday gave Stewart a warning before a game and he immediately went to his coach, Floyd Smith.
"Bill Friday said to me, 'Stop acting like an idiot,'." Stewart said. "I skated to the bench right away and said, 'Hey, did you hear what Friday just said?' And Floyd Smith said to me, 'He's right. Stop acting like an idiot.'."
Stewart said if it was felt a player needed to be straightened out, either for a pattern of behaviour or a particular sin like diving, he would issue the culprit a warning while they were skating in the pregame warm-up.
"I'd say, 'Hey, do yourself a favour tonight and stay on your feet,'." Stewart said. "Or I'd say, 'You might fool me one time but you won't fool me again.'."
Stewart recalls occasions when he took star players to task for petulant behaviour and to reinforce a lesson he thought was not learned.
One came during a run-in with Denis Savard of the Chicago Blackhawks. Stewart said Savard was not playing well and took his frustration out on the officials. At the end of the game, Stewart said, Savard topped his invective with a profane insult.
"All I said to [Savard]was, 'Have a happy Martin Luther King Day,'." Stewart said. The next time Stewart handled a Blackhawks game was on the holiday in question.
"Before the game, I purposely went by Savard and said, 'Have a happy Martin Luther King Day.' He just looked at me and slammed his stick on the ice. I went to his coach and said, 'You've got to make a change in your starting lineup. Savard just got a penalty.'."
Stewart said he gave Savard a two-minute minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and tacked on a 10-minute misconduct when he slammed the door to the penalty box. When Savard finished serving the 12 minutes in penalties, he skated by Stewart and said, 'You're still a …" and repeated the previous insult.
"So I said, 'Okay, you can sit for another 10 minutes and gave him another [misconduct]" Stewart said.
Savard complained to the NHL executive in charge of the referees, Stewart said. But Stewart said his boss was satisfied with his explanation. "I said Savard still hadn't learned his lesson."