Growing up, while his peers were out playing hockey, Stewart was making countless trips to the hospital. Born deaf, the Canucks seventh round, 186th overall, selection in 2014 wasn’t able to play the game he loved until he was 12.
“It was a mechanical issue,” said Stewart, who has regained 80-percent of his hearing. “Once they figured out I was deaf they had to go in and switch some things around to get my hearing back. I remember being in and out of the hospital a lot as a kid. I think I had something like two or three surgeries a year for quite a few years. Because of the surgeries, it prevented me from playing contact sports. I had to wait to have the opportunity to play sports.”
Without a doubt, starting the game at the age of 12, coupled with the fact Stewart isn’t your average size, currently standing 6-foot-4 and 238-pounds, things didn’t come easy. After a year playing at the Edge School for Athletes Hockey Academy in Calgary, Stewart was cut from the team he had hoped to make, which led to him spending the 2011-12 season practically living out of a suitcase.
“At 16 I never made the Midget AAA team at my school,” he said. “So I went off to play Junior ‘B’ for the High River Flyers and then they traded me to the Okotoks Bisons, and then from there I got cut and played for the Northstars Junior B team.”
Stewart never gave up. He continued to work harder and battle through all the adversity that was being thrown his way.
The next season, he moved up to Junior “A” with the Calgary Mustangs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. A solid start to the season earned him a call-up with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders in October of 2012. However, after six games he was sent back to Calgary where he would finish up the year.
It wasn’t until this season, at the age of 18, he was able to crack the Raiders line-up full-time. He went to camp, worked hard, played his game and defeated adversity once again. It’s that adversity that fuels Stewart and motivates him to keep on working and bettering himself every day.
“I think it really helped me to motivate myself to be relentless,” he said. “Hard work does pay off, so whenever I am maybe not having the best game I know to just keep working harder because I know it will pay off. You can always push through any situation. If you are in and out of the lineup or don’t make the team, if you work hard, you will get to where you want to go.”
After netting nine points (5-4-9) and 69 penalty-minutes, which included 10 fighting majors, last season for the Raiders, Stewart was hoping to earn an invite to an NHL training camp this summer. He wasn’t expecting to be part of the 2014 NHL Draft Class.
“Going into the season I was just looking to make the team,” said Stewart, who learned he was the newest Canucks prospect when his agent called while he was at his girlfriend’s prom in Prince Albert. “After I made it, I was just looking to get an invite somewhere, so to get drafted was a huge step for me.
“That was a tough time for me at 16-years-old. A lot of my friends were playing Midget AAA so for me to end up getting drafted is nice, but if someone had told me back then I was going to be drafted, I would have never believed it.”
Now the Canucks are hoping Stewart can continue to develop his game and turn into a tough, throwback defenceman that teams don’t want to play against.
“We see him projecting as a hard-nosed fifth or sixth defenceman,” said Canucks director of player development, Stan Smyl.
“What we want to do as an organization, especially with our defencemen, is that you want to have those types of defencemen slotted in that position that are hard to play against. He makes people pay the price and that’s what we want to see our organization get to. We want to have our defenceman be able to do those sort of things, and he provides that.
“He doesn’t stand out at you during games, but at the end of the night, he is a guy that battles hard.”