As Paul Stewart walked past the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room more than two hours before game time on Friday night, more than few hands reached out to say hello to the referee.
After a couple of handshakes and hugs, "Stewie" spoke every word in his Russian vocabulary -- about four or five -- to Darius Kasparaitis as the defenseman worked on his stick.
"Be good to me," Kasparaitis turned and said.
"I always watch out for No. 11," Stewart shot back with a smile that stretched across his face.
This was fun, the kind of banter that has been Stewart's trademark as a hockey official. And it was also the thing that the 43-year-old missed so much in recent months fighting a battle with a colon cancer that some doctors thought would take his life before the end of the year.
Stewart won that battle over the summer, and he wrote a meaningful chapter on it on Friday night, returning to referee the Penguins-New Jersey Devils game -- his first in the NHL since a playoff assignment April. 28.
"I feel exactly as I did as a kid the night before Christmas," Stewart said, and then swallowed hard trying to keep his emotions in check although wet eyes prevented that.
"I was so excited," the Boston native added. "The anxiety of whether Santa was going to come and whether I had been good enough or whether I would make it onto the present list."
On this night though, the present Stewart was cherishing most was his life.
He was diagnosed with colon cancer on Feb. 23, the day after his son, McCauley John, was born. The diagnosis came a month after Jay Monahan, the husband of Today show host Katie Couric, died of colon cancer.
Doctors gave Stewart a 50-50 chance of surviving the stage III cancer. He had surgery June 10, when 16 inches of his intestine was removed, and he followed that with chemotherapy
"I have always been a guy who doesn't like listening to odds," Stewart said. "I don't like lisening to people who told me that I couldn't do something."
That's the kind of player Stewart was in his one season in the NHL. Not much talent, but a hard worker who was a character on the ice.
That's the way he was approached the Penguins-Devils' game, although he admitted his presence on the ice might be even more of a distraction until he calls his first penalty.
"... Then I'll be back to the same old ... I used to be," Stewart quipped.
To prepare for this game, Stewart worked four AHL games as the sole referee, the last on Sunday in Cincinnati.
In each contest, a referee sat in the locker room just in cast. Veteran Bill McCreary did the same on Friday night.
Bryan Lewis, the NHL director of officiating, said the Devils-Penguins game was chosen to give Stewart a chance to be close to home so his family could be on hand. Two referees were not used because Stewart was not used to it.
Stewart will work at Nashville on Thursday in a two-referee setup.
"I'm going to make a mistake out here tonight," Stewart said. "I'm going to try not to, but I might."
Stewart he would forgive himself though, because despite all the boos and criticism, this is the job he loves to do.
"I'm the right guy for this job, and I am fortunate I got my health back," he said. "And I was the right guy to fight this disease."
Stewart had invited Couric to attend the game, but she was unable because the threat of a war "someplace."
"I told them you come to any of my games and that will break out any time," said Stewart, who lost 25 pounds after surgery and chemotherapy.
Two people who did accept the invitation were Stewart's wife, Lori, and McCauley, who attended his first NHL game wearing a vintage referee sweater.
"... I'm going on to a new phase," Stewart said. "That's something that I didn't think I'd have, a second chance at doing what I love do -- skate and be a part of the National Hockey League."
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