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The Christmas Gift Of A Hockey Lifetime07:43
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NHL referee Paul Stewart in action during a 1988 game between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils. He says his career in hockey was launched when his Dad gave him a gift. (Ezra C. Shaw/Allsport/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
NHL referee Paul Stewart in action during a 1988 game between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils. He says his career in hockey was launched when his Dad gave him a gift. (Ezra C. Shaw/Allsport/Getty Images)

Paul Stewart was an athlete. It could hardly have been otherwise. His grandfather played minor league baseball and coached the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL championship in 1938. And Stewart’s dad followed a similar path.

"Well, my father was the three-sport coach at Boston English High," Stewart says.

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Bill Stewart Jr. also taught at the high school and refereed college football, baseball and hockey games. So young Paul, who always wanted to be with his Dad, spent a lot of time at the rink where he was an official. Paul Stewart was especially fond of the penalty box, where he was sometimes in peculiar company.

"I was safe there, " Stewart says. "And I was particularly safe because my dad used to have Haystacks Calhoun, the 700-pound wrestler, sit between players. And they only had one penalty box. I was sitting on Haystacks' lap as he watched the game. Who was a better babysitter than Haystacks Calhoun?"

A Bookie, French Fries And A Pair Of Skates

As a little kid, being at the rink was pure fun for Stewart, even when he wasn’t on the ice. Because if he wasn’t skating, he was at the snack bar.

"Well, the fella that sold the French fries was a great guy. And his name was Tony. And he had two pay phones just aside of his stand. And when the phone would ring, he’d jump over the top of the counter. And he’d say to me, 'Paul, mind the store.' And I would hand out French fries for 25 cents, and he’d take a notebook out of his pocket. And he’d be writing notes. He was taking numbers for the horses," Stewart says, laughing.

Bill Stewart Jr. (left) and Paul Stewart at a 1972 Groton School alumni baseball game. (Courtesy of Paul Stewart)
Bill Stewart Jr. (left) and Paul Stewart at a 1972 Groton School alumni baseball game. (Courtesy of Paul Stewart)

A childhood spent in the company of his Dad, and hockey players, an enormous pro wrestler, and a bookie. What kid could ask for more?

Come one particular Christmastime when he was still very much a kid, Paul Stewart had an answer for that question. He’d been charging around the arena on his big sister’s hand-me-down figure skates. What other hockey player had to wear white and deal with toe picks? He wanted hockey skates. But he knew his dad didn’t make much as a teacher and coach, and Dad didn’t lead Paul to expect more than those white figure skates any time soon.

"He said, 'You can learn to skate in those. And when you learn to skate in those, maybe you’ll get a better pair,' " Stewart says. "And then, one day, maybe a few weeks just before Christmas, John Bishop, who was running the skate shop, said, 'I need a favor, Paul.' I said, 'What’s that?' He said, 'My nephew’s just your size. And I’m gonna get him this pair of skates for Christmas. Can you try ‘em on?' So I said, 'Okay.' And they were a pair of Hydes. And they had blue skate tips on the end. I’ll never forget them. I tried them on, and they fit. He said, 'That’s good. They should fit my nephew, too.' And I remember taking them off, reluctantly."

Paul did not get to go out on the ice.

"We just tried them on to see if they fit, and put ‘em back in the box," Stewart says. "I took them off and said, 'Well, I hope he has fun in them.' And I remember running upstairs to get another box of French fries from the bookie. And not too long after that, it was Christmas."

The Gift That Would Take Paul 'Everywhere'

There being four kids in the household, Christmas was a big deal in the Stewart family.

"My brother had a train set. And there were all different types of toys that we all unwrapped. And, of course, the usual scarves and hats and scratchy stuff that we didn’t even want to try on, that our aunt sent us from California. So all of the presents were unwrapped," Stewart says. "And I remember my Dad, leaning against the wall, right next to the Christmas tree. And he said, 'Paul, I think there’s one more present.' And it was sorta tucked under the tree, but a little behind the couch. And I couldn’t really see it. And I looked, and it said, 'To Paul, from Santa.' And I opened it up. And it was those skates that I had tried on."

Maybe you have to be a hockey player to understand how great that Christmas was. If you’re not, maybe this will help.

"And I remember after putting them on and clomping around the living room, looking up at my Dad," Stewart says. "And he had his arms folded. And he had a smile on his face. And he winked. My dad, my mom, they gave me the best present ever, because those skates took me everywhere."

Eventually the skates — and the skates that came after them — took Paul Stewart to the World Hockey Association (WHA) and the NHL. His pro career also included a lot of bus rides to and from minor league burgs like New Haven, Birmingham and Broome, wherever that may be. After he’d hung up his stick, Stewart would officiate more than 1,000 NHL games. His father witnessed both of Paul’s careers with pride and, along the way, Stewart made a lot of friends in the game and beyond.

Bill Stewart, Jr. watches as his son, Paul, referees a Bruins game in November 1987. Bill Stewart, Jr. died the following month. (Courtesy Paul Stewart)
Bill Stewart, Jr. watches as his son, Paul, referees a Bruins game in November 1987. Bill Stewart, Jr. died the following month. (Courtesy Paul Stewart)

And then several decades ago, Paul Stewart spent another memorable Christmas with his dad. Their last one together, as it turned out.

"My father was ill, and he was bent over and crippled, like Yoda. He had a hump on his back, and his fingers were gnarled. And he was sick," Stewart says, his voice catching. "And he was sitting in the den of the home that my grandfather had built with the money that he earned when he won the Stanley Cup with Chicago. So I got this little tree, and we put it up. And my Dad and I were sitting there, and we had a drink, and we were listening to the Christmas music, and the lights were on. And it was nice and peaceful. And he said to me, 'So, what was your best Christmas ever?' And I said to him, 'The time when Santa brought me those skates.' And he looked at me, and he said, 'Except for this, that was my favorite one, too.'"

The Skates Disappear, But The Memory Remains

Athletes, even the ones who don’t make the pros, save stuff: old jerseys, cracked baseball bats, footballs signed by their teammates. I figured maybe Paul Stewart had saved those Christmas skates. Nope.

"I think my Dad took them and gave them to another kid along the way," Stewart says.

"After you’d probably outgrown them and moved on," I say.

"And skated practically through them.  With my toes crunched up," Stewart says with a laugh.

The memory of that Christmas — like the memory of those skates — will be with Paul Stewart as long as he’s breathing, Christmas Day or not, though maybe the focus is a little sharper this time of year. And sometimes, as Stewart imagines it, his Dad isn’t beside that tree. He’s at the rink, where the two of them spent so many hours together.

"He’s got his arms across the pipe, like he would have at the old Boston Garden, watching the game. Or at the Arena, talking out of the side of his mouth, his eyes focused on the puck, but never looking away from the game, and saying, 'Can you believe that guy?' " Stewart says with a laugh. "I’m sure he’s still shaking his head with me."

Yeah. And he’s probably winking, too.

This segment aired on December 23, 2017.

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