Stewart Overcomes Odds to Reach NHL
The following is the cover story I wrote for the October issue of St. Louis Sports Magazine.
It’s not often we hear of National Hockey League players growing up in an environment plagued by gang violence, drug use, and prostitution. Then again, very few go from the tough streets of Scarborough, Ontario to playing in the NHL.
“Me and my brother have friends who have died, were in gangs, in jail but we were never about that,” said Blues forward Chris Stewart.
Stewart is a survivor in large part because of a family bond that’s as tight as any you’ll come across. Just one glance at the tattoo-covered power forward and family is literally written all over his body. His tattoos range from the names of his five sisters, to the initials of his niece and nephew, to a Jamaican flag and an Irish shamrock signifying his parent’s roots, to his brother’s hockey number, along with the initials of his late mother written on his chest. Each of these tattoos holds a significant meaning to what matters the most in Stewart’s life.
“If you know me personally you know I’m all about my family,” he said.
His family includes five younger sisters along with older brother Anthony, a fellow NHL player and former first-round pick of the Florida Panthers.
Money was tight when the Stewart boys were growing up. The family lost their house and had no alternative but to move into a one-bedroom government hostel. The house, too small for the entire family, forced Anthony to move in with another family while Chris, his parents and five little sisters stayed in a space the size of a hotel room.
They would stay in the one bedroom for two years before the family was able to get back on their feet and move into a townhouse.
Norman Stewart, a Jamaican immigrant, installed swimming pools in an effort to make ends meet. He introduced his boys to a variety of sports when they were young including soccer, cricket, and of course the most expensive sport of all, ice hockey.
“Hockey was the sport they gravitated towards,” says Norman with his thick, authentic, Jamaican accent that resembles the legendary reggae singer Bob Marley. “As a father, a sports enthusiast, and loyal Montreal Canadiens fan I said, ‘That’s OK, there are certain things we got to work on.’ ”
Norman did his best to provide for the Stewart boys. If a stick would break they would just tape it back together.
“That would mean no slap shots; only thing we could do was pass and tip,” said Norman laughing.
Eventually as the boys got older, they got better and were courted by several youth hockey organizations. A man by the name of Bob Law coached the North York Canadiens and told Norman not to worry about the cost; just get them here.
There were several people and families who would often step up and help either Chris or Anthony buy a pair of skates or a stick. Longtime NHL goaltender and current NHL television analyst Kevin Weekes funded a hockey school and would pay for the Stewart brothers and others to attend. Many would go on to play in the NHL including Joel Ward, Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban, and Trevor Daley. Weekes saw the potential in Chris at an early age.
“He was a great athlete; there was just something about him with an under-the-surface talent and mindset. My dad and I told Chris at the time we thought he was going to be a late bloomer and a sleeper,” said Weekes.
Anthony, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes this past summer, has a lot to do with where his younger brother is today. Besides being his role model and best friend, it was Anthony who got Chris back on track to eventually develop into a first-round NHL draft pick.
At 16 years old, Chris quit playing competitive hockey and began focusing on football where he starred as a tight end.
“Football was cheaper and I didn’t have to put that financial burden on the family,” said Chris Stewart.
He actually received offers to play at the college level in Canada, but quickly put the idea of catching footballs to rest. He was also a standout track star who competed in the Ontario track championships, the equivalent of the state championships here in the United States.
At the time, Anthony was already playing for the Kingston Frontenacs in the esteemed Ontario Hockey League. After watching Chris play in a random pickup game, Anthony knew if he committed to getting in shape he had the raw ability to make it at the highest level.
Almost immediately after watching his brother play, Anthony picked up the phone and dialed Frontenacs general manager Larry Mavety asking for his brother to be given a tryout.
“It came down to the last cut and they were asking if Chris could fight. I told him before the last scrimmage that he was going to have to show he could do it all. He ended up getting into a fight and made the team,” said Anthony.
It didn’t take long for the town to catch on to the younger Stewart who had lost 35 pounds before arriving to training camp.
“I opened my hotel room and saw the newspaper sitting at my door. I went to the sports page and saw a big headline that read, ‘Another Stewart in Town,’ ” recalls Norman.
That year, the 17-year-old Stewart showed he could do more than just fight, scoring 18 goals his rookie OHL season. The following season he would emerge as a legitimate NHL prospect totaling 87 points and 118 penalty minutes en route to the Colorado Avalanche selecting Stewart in the first round of the 2006 NHL entry draft. Not bad for a kid who had given up on hockey two years before. He was projected as a fifth-round pick coming into his NHL draft year.
It’s a fitting addition to the rags to riches story that has followed Chris for most of his life.
Entering the third year of his OHL career, life was rolling along nicely for the 19-year-old Stewart.
However, on March 19, 2007, Chris received a phone call that would change his life forever. The team was given the day off and Stewart had crashed on his girlfriend’s couch.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “My sister Sarah called me and said Mom’s not breathing. I just froze; I didn’t know what to do.”
Stewart hung up the phone and immediately called Anthony who was in Rochester, N.Y., playing in the American Hockey League. Anthony, still unaware of his mother’s condition, didn’t answer the phone. Chris quickly had his girlfriend drive him home only to receive a second call five minutes later. This time it was his father.
“He said mom passed away,” Chris said.
Susan Stewart had diabetes, but there were no warning signs pointing toward her being in bad health. At 52 years of age, a massive heart attack was the cause of her death.
“It was a shock. I still think about it four years later. It’s mind boggling,” said Chris.
On the inside, Chris was shattered following his mom’s passing.
Said Norman, “Knowing the struggle we went through along the journey and we were at the stage now where she’s supposed to enjoy the benefits. She was just taken away like that. At that time, all Chris was saying was, ‘Why now, why now?’ ” said Norman with conviction heard in his voice.
Like any father, Norman was needed to lead the family and to help get everyone get through the most difficult of times.
“I told the family all the decisions that God had made for us along the way were all positive. With God in front and we don’t have no fear knowing he will protect us,” said Norman.
It was hard for Anthony, who was four hours away in Rochester, being away from the family after their mom passed away. He relied heavily on Chris to make sure the family was taken care of.
“Chris was definitely the backbone of the family at that time,” said Anthony.
Brighter days would eventually come as both Stewart boys began living out their dream of playing in the NHL. One of the first things Anthony did once he reached the NHL was purchase a nice house for his family to live in. Long gone are the days of living in government housing as both Chris and Anthony understand the responsibility of giving back. Chris is entering the final year of his contract and will be due a nice raise following this season.
“It’s my brother’s turn now,” Anthony said.
The effort that Chris and Anthony have shown Norman and the rest of family has the entire Stewart clan at peace.
‘We don’t worry about nothing,” said Norman, who is now retired.
Chris entered the league playing with Colorado where he notched 28 goals in his first full season. Once considered to be a future captain in Colorado, the Blues and the Avalanche pulled off one of the more shocking trades seen in recent years sending Stewart and promising defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis in exchange for two players, most notably former first overall pick Erik Johnson.
“They were preaching we were going to build from within but there was a time a few weeks before the trade when I thought something was up. I remember asking my agent and he said no chance. A few weeks later the trade happened,” recalled Stewart.
The trade would completely change the dynamic of the Blues’ roster as it gave them a dominating presence up front who’s a difficult matchup for just about any team in the league. The natural strength and power he brought to the ice paid immediate dividends as he scored 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games with St. Louis.
“Adding Stewart to a team that had some big bodies and skill allowed us to have that element on more than one line,” Blues head coach Davis Payne said.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has identified Stewart as being one of the key core pieces of this franchise moving forward. The Blues firmly believe Stewart is capable of scoring 35 goals this season, which should help lead the franchise back to the playoffs. Some feel Stewart is capable of scoring even more this season.
“I believe he can score 50,” said Weekes.
Add the likes of Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, newly named captain David Backes and David Perron to the mix and the Blues have a core of offensive players that match up very well throughout the league.
This summer Armstrong signed some much-needed veteran presence up front with the addition of forwards Scott Nichol as well as Stanley Cup winners Jamie Langenbrunner, and Jason Arnott. Collectively, Langenbrunner and Arnott combine for over 2,000 career games and 1,542 career points. Throw in another 252 career playoff games and the organization grew up in a hurry.
There’s another level for the Blues to reach as an organization and having Stewart in place for a full season will add some confidence to a team hungry to make some noise.
“Of all the big men that play in the game right now, I’m gonna tell you right now, none of them have his hands. There’s no panic in his game,” said Norman.
The adversity Stewart deals with on the ice is nothing in comparison to what he’s been through away from the game. He’s an inspiration to anyone who’s had to overcome unexpected obstacles in their life.
Tattooed on Stewart’s body it says “Heart of a Lion” as well as a dream catcher that says “the sky’s the limit.”
It would be hard to think of any better way to describe Chris Stewart both as a person and a player.
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