I have never met the New York Rangers' Matt Rempe. I'm now 20 years retired from my active officiating career in the NHL and 43 years removed from the end of my playing days. I would, however, love to have a talk with that young man if that could be arranged.
If I ever spoke with Matt, I'd tell him last night's game against Columbus was the most important one he's played in his professional career. Why? It was the first one where he didn't have to drop the gloves. He skated 11 shifts (7:42 of ice time). No trips to the penalty box or back to the locker room. No lead stories on TV highlight shows. But four clean, solid body checks on a night where his team won, 4-1.
Rempe's true fight here is the uphill battle to find a role for himself in today's NHL. If I spoke to Matt, I'd tell him about the challenge I faced in my own playing days -- there WERE spots in the NHL for enforcers, yes, but there was also a lot more competition. My main competition in training camp with the Rangers was Nick Fotiu. Nick won out, and he deserved the spot.
Back when I played, we all strived over time to play regular shifts beyond being called on to stand up for teammates or the team as a whole. Fights were never, ever arranged before the game (Rempe's already had two pre-agreed fights that were arranged during pregame warmups). That cheapens the moment, lessens the reason WHY to fight in the first place. It's not that we didn't know why our coach dressed us for the game and we certainly knew which player(s) on the other side were our likely opponent(s) but it was still a situational thing.
Nowadays, there may be one spot available for a Nic Deslauriers or Ryan Reaves type, but they'd better be able to skate a few shifts, too. That's why last night's game was such an important one for Rempe. Yes, in Philly last Saturday l, he set up a screen with his 6-foot-8 and had a puck pinball into the net off a teammate's stick and off Rempe's knee for his first NHL goal. All the talk afterwards, though, was about the fight with Deslauriers.
I don't have to know Rempe personally to know that was a special moment for him. My first NHL goal was a little bit similar -- and you could read the label on the puck as it went in the net -- but a goal is a goal on the scoreboard or your Hockeydb entry. It doesn't matter HOW it ended up in the net to your goal-scoring credit. Just that it did.
When I started out in pro hockey, I had 42 fights -- 42 freakin' fights -- in 46 games for the Dusters in the old NAHL. I knew my degree from the University of Pennsylvania might help me in other ways, but it wasn't going to get me to the WHA and then the NHL. I knew that my hockey skill (and all jokes aside, I DID have some and worked like hell to develop it) wasn't going to match up to the competition. It was going to have to be my toughness.
So THAT is where I feel a certain kinship with Matt Rempe. I don't want Matt to be a sideshow. I want him to be a tough hockey player, with all three words carrying equal weight. In his NHL debut, he had his first fight before his first actual shift. In his second, Rempe made a mistake. He got tossed out early in the first period for a check to the head of New Jersey's Nathan Bastian.
No it wasn't charging. Rempe glided and didn't leave his feat. It was a shoulder-first hit. Yes, there's a big height difference to begin with, and Bastian was crouched. Guess what? It was still a bad hit and the right call was absolutely made under today's rules. The angle on the hit never changed. The principle contact point was to the head. Rules were changed years ago that players can no longer defensively raise their stick (making opposing checkers veer away or run themselves directly into the high stick). It's up to checker to avoid the hit direct to the head. Rempe didn't, and was rightly assessed the penalty that goes with it. Don't blame the ref.
In his third game, Rempe had a staged fight with Deslauriers. It was one hell of a fight, don't get me wrong. Both guys stood their ground and had an epic bout. I give Deslauriers full credit for giving the kid a chance to prove himself (as Terry O'Reilly did for me, way back in the day). I just wish Deslauriers hadn't skated up to Rempe in the pregame and asked him if he wanted to fight when they got out on the ice together. Just do it if you're going to. No appointment needed.
The very next day, Rempe had ANOTHER staged fight in his next game. This time it was with Columbus forward Mathiew Olivier. Olivier came up to Rempe during warmups, congratulated him for making an impression at the Stadium Series and on national TV against Delauriers and asked if he wanted to go again. Rempe should NOT have fought again on Sunday unless he absolutely had to in the context of the game. No one can fight every game.
When I was refereeing, I'd often chat to players before the game. Some of my favorite guys to talk to were the ones who played the same role that I used to play. We had a good rapport in most cases. Someone would tell me they'd just fought in, say, three straight games. Their hands were cut up. Their face was swollen. Two night ago, they'd taken a shot under the chin (which rattles your teeth, your head, your whole damn body even if you didn't drop). Whatever the case. And all the guy wanted that particular night was just to skate his shifts and not have to fight. That was valuable intel to me as a ref. I knew the guy was not inclined to fight that night if he didn't have to.
The first game against Columbus should have been one such day for Rempe. Fighting Deslauriers took a lot out of Rempe. I can guarantee you that, because I'd been there myself so many times and reffed to so many players who did the same role. I doubt Rempe WANTED to fight Olivier one day after going with "DeLo" but felt like he had no choice but to say yes. This time around, Rempe wasn't at his best and he took a beating.
There is no shame in "losing" a fight. There are no hockey versions of Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson among even the NHL heavyweights. Everyone has had a few "losses", but the purpose is to show up and fight the battle in the first place. There were guys who got the better of me a few times and I'd go right back at them again, and they'd oblige. That was how it was done. There were no pregame invites, no staging.
I paid attention to what would happen when the Rangers played the Blue Jackets again. I was rooting to NOT see another Rempe fight with Olivier, and to see, instead, Matt just play hockey. He did, and that was a bonafide win, whether people realize that or not. Rempe's biggest challenge now is to prove he can hold his own at the NHL pace in fourth-line shifts. He's already shown he can fight. There can always been some other night where Rempe goes again with Olivier (or Deslauriers or whomever), but he'll have to be in the NHL to do it.
The pace Rempe was setting, with fights or ejections in four straight games, was NOT going to be sustainable. You can't run a marathon like a sprint. And he still has a lot to prove as a young player.
If I talked to Matt, I'd tell him that I don't have many regrets in my career. One that I do have was my preseason debut for the Rangers in 1976. On my first shift, I fought Steve Short. Totally by accident, I grabbed a handful of hair when going for his sweater. Referee John McCauley tossed me from the game. I'd have done the same as the referee. But it was NOT the first impression that I wanted to make. First impressions are the most important impressions.
I might not have beat out Nick Fotiu for a roster spot, regardless. And maybe the Rangers never planned to carry two tough guys on their roster. I don't know. I just know that I went in wanting to show that I could offer some versatility as some one who could play defense or wing, throw my weight around and THEN fight as needed. Lasting one shift and hitting the showers was not what I set out to do.
Maybe Matt would appreciate hearing from someone who played his role in the NHL and then officiated for the better part of two decades. Or maybe he'd nod politely and then, after I left, ask a teammate "Who was that guy, anyway?" I don't know. But I do think I'd have some insights to offer. I wish him all the best in his professional journey.
A 2018 inductee into 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.