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INTO THE WILD OF THE NHL

by Royal Reign / Los Angeles Kings
For most of us, playing defense against the world’s greatest hockey players 82 times a year would constitute a trip into the wild. But for Kings’ defenseman Brad Stuart, it’s just another day at the office. Stuart‘s idea of uncommon adventure and extraordinary challenge was found in the common environs of his neighborhood bookseller.

A few years ago, Stuart was browsing the racks, thumbing through the pages of the latest bestsellers, when a book reached out and grabbed him. He read the back cover and couldn’t put it down.

The tome was “Into the Wild,” author Jon Krakauer’s account of the post-collegiate ramblings of unconventional adventurer Chris McCandless. The volume soon became Stuart’s favorite book.

“It was a fascinating story,” Stuart said. “It was interesting that he had a desire to leave the material life behind.”

So goes the spellbinding story of McCandless, a 24-year-old college graduate who shunned society, opting instead to hit the road, taking a roundabout journey that led to an untimely death in Alaska.

Stuart isn’t the only reader to be captivated by Krakauer’s account of McCandless. Actor/director Sean Penn had the same visceral reaction that Stuart did when he read the book. Ultimately, Penn adapted the story to the big screen.

“When I read the book,” Stuart said, “I remember thinking how hard it would be to make it into a movie, but they did a great job. I would recommend it, and if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you should.”

The movie was generating Oscar buzz as the best picture of the year, however, Penn's "Into the Wild," was shut out of the major races, though it picked up nominations for supporting actor (Hal Holbrook), editing and musical score.

As McCandless, actor Emile Hirsch rails against society.

Stuart says that while he did not see much of himself in McCandless, he did occasionally relate to the adventurer’s point of view.

“We get so caught up in things that are not important,” Stuart said.

Stuart himself left home at the age of 14, to pursue a hockey career. He didn’t absolve himself of all worldly possessions the way the hero of Into the Wild did, but his quest to make it to the NHL did take him down a similarly long, winding - and unconventional - road.

“It was a huge step to take,” he said. “I haven’t spent much time at home since because of hockey.”

Like McCandless, who assumed the alias “Alexander Supertramp” during his travels, Stuart’s quest has taken him to all corners of North America.

He played junior hockey in Red Deer, Regina, and Calgary. In 1999, he went straight from the Western Hockey League to the NHL, joining San Jose. The Sharks had selected him in the first round (3rd overall) of the 1998 Entry Draft. After five-plus seasons in San Jose, he was shipped to Boston as part of the Joe Thornton deal in November of 2005.

“That was interesting,” Stuart said, “because everybody had an opinion on the deal. It was tough to adapt because it was a deal that sent me across country, and it was the first time I had been traded. But the Bruins were great to me.”

A year later, Stuart was dealt again, this time to Calgary, where he spent one season. The Kings then signed him as a free agent last summer. All that movement makes for a unique lifestyle. Stuart’s own father, he said, has wondered how he does it.

“It’s a different lifestyle,” Stuart said. “Not everyone is cut out for it.”

While working his way up to the NHL, Stuart said he was so focused on his goal that he really didn’t mind all the sacrifices and moves. He also said there were plenty of players with more talent than him who now only see the NHL on Hockey Night in Canada. Stuart committed himself to hockey and made making the NHL his first priority, and admits that the financial rewards that come with a successful hockey career didn’t hurt his motivation.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said, “the money is nice.”

Still, seeing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was less important than the sights along the way.

“When I used to watch the NHL,” Stuart said, “I always thought those guys were living the dream. Hockey was important to me, but I never really thought about the finances of the game. It was always a game, and winning was always the No. 1 priority.”

Now that he’s in his eighth NHL season, Stuart feels that he, too, is living the dream. He says he makes it a point to remind himself of just how lucky he is to play hockey for a living.

“You’re going to go on losing streaks and have bad games,” he said. “And when that happens, I tell myself how lucky I am.”

Stuart tries to remind others, too. At 28, he is neither young nor old among the current crop of Kings. The job of mentoring belongs to captain Rob Blake, but Stuart does what he can to impart the wisdom of his experience on his younger teammates.

“I’m kind of in the middle in terms of age and experience on this team,” he said. “But because I’ve experienced so many things, I can offer some insight to the younger guys. Mostly, I’m just trying to fit in and help the team win.”

In addition to the experience he provides, Stuart brings strong skating and passing skills to the Kings. Some of that talent is a gift, but being successful comes down to taking care of that gift.

“You have to work at the things you do well,” he said. “You have to be mentally tough, too. So much of this game is mental. That’s the hardest part of it. Some guys have a tough time with it.”

Goaltenders and defensemen, in particular, need an unshakable resolve because their mistakes are often turned into opponents’ goals.

“As a defenseman,” Stuart said, “mistakes are more obvious. But they are going to happen and a mistake here or there can’t throw your game off.”

The entire Kings team showed the level of its collective mental toughness in October, when they rebounded from a disappointing first few weeks of the season to fight their way back into a position where competing for a playoff spot is still a possibility.

“We were able to do that because of dedication and mental toughness,” Stuart said. “That was the difference.”

Good, old-fashioned faith played a role in the Kings turnaround, too.

“We were 2-6, but as a team, we knew we had been doing things well and we realized that we are a good team. Once you get your confidence, it makes all the difference in the world,” Stuart said.

The Kings believe they are a team on the rise and that their future is much more promising than their recent past. Stuart, however, is on a one-year contract, and should this turn out to be his only season in Los Angeles; he wants it to be memorable. He’ll do what he can to help the team’s young players prepare for the future, but he wants to win, and he wants to win now.

“We want to be seen as successful now, not just in the future,” Stuart said. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Into the wild of the NHL, where the Kings’ continued development into a playoff contender figures to be the ultimate adventure for Stuart and his teammates.

Originally written by Doug Ward for Royal Reign.

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