For Kingston Frontenacs winger Chris Stewart, life couldn’t be better right now. Soon after the NHL crowns its champion, the league will turn its attention to GM Place in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 2006 Entry Draft. Stewart will be one of the top North American skaters waiting to be selected by one of the league’s 30 teams.
Stewart will tell you it’s quite the honor, but things weren’t always that easy for him.
Roughly three years ago, Stewart was playing minor hockey and basically following in the footsteps of his older brother, Florida Panthers prospect Anthony Stewart. But while his brother, three years older, was beginning to flourish as a junior player with Kingston and for Team Canada, Chris was ready to give up on the game altogether. And even though the brothers were very close, they couldn’t have been farther apart in direction.
“I couldn’t handle the pressure of being in my brother’s footsteps,” Stewart told Hockey’s Future. “I always played hockey and I loved it. When I got to high school, I thought I would be a better lineman than a hockey player. I just went at it from there.”
Wanting to make a name for himself on his own, Stewart walked away from the sport of hockey during his OHL draft year. He went on to high school and tried his hand at football.
But something just wasn’t right and that’s when Anthony stepped in.
“He was just man enough to sit me down and tell me that I needed to figure my life out,” said Stewart about the conversation that eventually would lead him back to hockey. “He felt that I always had the skill and that if I got back into shape, along with my age and if I put in a solid effort, I could crack the lineup.”
After spending the last three seasons watching Anthony play in Kingston, Chris finally became eager to get back out on the ice again. And that chance came when Anthony talked the Frontenacs to give his brother a chance to make the team as a free agent.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘there is no way I can skate with these guys,’” Stewart said about his initial feelings when he got on the ice.
While he was stuck between being a bit timid and a bit in awe, he would go on to earn a roster spot with the team and try to settle in with the help from whom else? Anthony.
“It helped, but it felt kind of weird,” Stewart said about having Anthony at his side to help him early on his first season with Kingston. “I mean this is the same guy you’ve watched playing for his country with Team Canada on the television, then you’re sitting right beside him on the bench.”
As the 2004-05 season would continue on, it was clear that it was Anthony’s team to lead, and his year to earn his way as a rookie.
“It was very important because I didn’t want to make the team as Anthony Stewart’s younger brother,” he explained about how he was feeling early on last year. “I didn’t want people to say the only reason I was there was because of him. I came in and the first game I fought. I had to make my own name, build a good reputation and make the team straight up.”
He would go on to play a smaller role on the Frontenacs third and fourth lines, while he deferred the spotlight to Anthony.
“You had to let my brother have all the glory,” he explained. “There was no way I was going to compete with him. I played my part and waited for next year.”
What sophomore jinx?
As Anthony left Kingston and the OHL to continue his career with the Florida Panthers during the 2005-06 season, Chris returned to the Frontenacs ready to get down to business and shine.
“I came back with a lot of confidence coming out of summer,” said Stewart about how much he felt this was going to be his year to show everyone who and what he was all about. “I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied being a 30 or 40-point guy on the lower lines. That is what was important and that is what I wanted to show everybody.”
Backed by a steady goaltender in Danny Taylor (LA), two solid scoring lines and a very capable defense led by 2006 eligible Ben Shutron, the Frontenacs would go on to turn in one of the their best regular season finishes since the 1999-00 season.
“We had great goaltending after making the acquisition for Danny Taylor,” Stewart explained. “I also thought we were closer as a team this year. There weren’t a lot of individuals and we all had a team first attitude.
“Shutron was also our go-to defenseman all season long. He was in a slump for a bit, but in the end he was the one we went to. He was really reliable on power play by getting the puck through. Overall, he’s such an amazing player.”
As for Stewart, he spent his minutes playing alongside fellow 2006 eligible prospects Cory Emmerton and Bobby Hughes, who also happened to be among the top players for Kingston this year.
“They are both two very smart players and are very highly skilled,” said Stewart about playing with the two of his closer teammates. “I can’t take all the credit for the success we had. They always had a way to find me because we clicked.”
Between the mix of Stewart’s determination and the sheer wizardry of Emmerton and Hughes, the self-proclaimed two-way power forward would erupt in the month of January, scoring 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 10 games, including a four-point effort against St. Michael’s Majors on January 27th.
“At the end of December, I received a two-game suspension for being the third man in on a fight after game, or something like that,” Stewart began to explain what ended up being the ultimate drive behind his point outburst in January. “I lost those two games, but I wanted to come back prove to my team how sorry I was and that I was there for them.”
While it was just one big exclamation point during the season, Stewart would go on to finish the year as the team’s second leading scoring, registering 87 points (37 goals, 50 assists) in 62 games played. He also finished with 118 penalty minutes and was a plus-19.
In a year he needed to step up, he did just that. But the humble winger admits, he was lucky that he had a team so willing to back his style of play this year.
“It’s huge for them to put their trust in me knowing that I’m a go-to guy,” he said. “In the end I appreciate it, because it is a huge thing to me.”
Casting his own shadow
It is hard for some people to understand the burden or pressure a younger sibling has to endure, when they think they have to fight through the giant shadows their older brothers or sisters cast. For some, they can have little trouble finding their way. For others, like Stewart, sometimes they need to take the road less traveled to really test who they are and find out what they really want.
Today he’s doing just fine, having realized he can relish his brother’s success, and even embrace his own.
“I owe everything to him, all my success,” Stewart reflected. “If we never had that conversation or he never would have got me that tryout in Kingston, I’d probably be a nobody trying to get into a university right now.”
Come June 24th, he’ll cross one more hurdle, one that he’s going to be proud to overcome.
“Three years ago I was basically a nobody trying to make it football,” he said surprisingly about the progress he’s made. “Now, I’m one of the top names being mentioned for the draft. That is just a huge accomplishment and shows that if you can put your mind towards something, anything is possible.”
The Chris Stewart File
Position: Right Wing
Hometown: Scarborough, ON
– 2nd overall in team scoring / 13th overall in OHL (87)
– 2nd overall in team goals / 18th overall in OHL (37)
– 2nd overall in team assists / 23rd in OHL (50)
– 1st overall in team PPG / 38th in OHL (13)
– 1st overall in team Points Per Game (1.40)
– Named OHL Eastern Conference All-Star
– Named to Team Cherry for 2006 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game
–Ranked 8th overall North American skater by Central Scouting
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