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Avalanche's Stewart is finding his way

by Rick Sadowski

"Football seemed like the better option back then. I was really good at it, so I thought I'd try and focus on that. I had good hands and I could run pretty quick, and I was a big body who could block." -- Chris Stewart

In a different time, in a different place, Chris Stewart might have been catching passes and bowling over would-be tacklers as a tight end in the National Football League.

Instead, Stewart is scoring goals for the Colorado Avalanche and using his 6-foot-2, 228-pound body to nail NHL opponents with punishing bodychecks.

The 22-year-old right wing already has produced more goals (14), assists (15) and points (29) in 42 games than he did as a rookie last season, when he had 11 goals and eight assists in 53 games.

Even so, Stewart, who was a star tight end at West Hill High School in Scarborough, Ontario, has had some difficult moments in his brief professional career.

The Avalanche's top pick (No. 18) in the 2006 Entry Draft, Stewart spent parts of three seasons in the American Hockey League following a three-year stay with Kingston in the OHL. And there were times when it appeared he'd turn out to be a first-round bust. It also was a time when Stewart might have wondered if he should have stuck with football.

"I was a little heavier then, somewhere around 250 or 260," Stewart told "Football seemed like the better option back then. I was really good at it, so I thought I'd try and focus on that. I had good hands and I could run pretty quick, and I was a big body who could block.

"But it's hard coming out of Canada and getting a scholarship to a big school in the States, and I didn't have the grades at the time. So I put football aside and it was hockey 100 percent."

Stewart has plenty of skill, but a lack of consistency and the failure to play with enough aggressiveness were holding him back. After collecting 1 assist in the Avalanche's first four games this season, Stewart was scratched for the next four games, then demoted to the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL on Oct. 20.

"At the beginning of the year I don't think he was playing with an edge consistently," said first-year Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, who coached Stewart at Lake Erie for parts of two seasons. "He's a big guy and he skates well. He has skills, but he has to play with an edge.

"I'm pretty sure that being sent down wasn't what he wanted to hear at the time, but it's not always what you want to hear, it's what you need to hear. I think it sent a message to him that he needed to do more."

Stewart's stint with the Monsters was short-lived. He played one game and was recalled Oct. 23 because of injuries to a few Avalanche players, the most serious a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered by David Jones.

"It's unfortunate that we lost some key guys to injury," Stewart said. "Someone had to step up and it's worked out in my favor. I wanted to show that I can be a go-to guy here."

Stewart gradually worked his way back into Sacco's good graces -- and onto the Avalanche's top line with center Paul Stastny, a unit that has included Milan Hejduk or Wojtek Wolski on the left side.

"You just have to show the right attitude, show that you'll do whatever it takes to get back up," Stewart said. "When you get the chance, you have to show them that they made a mistake (by sending him to the minors). I need to try and stick with that power forward mode and play to my strengths, not try to be too cute. I have to use my assets, which are my speed and my ability to make plays in tight."

Stewart has been one of the Avalanche's most consistent forwards in the past month and a half. He's collected 13 goals and 10 assists in 24 games since Nov. 23 after getting 1 goal and 5 assists in his first 18 games.

"It was a wakeup call for him when he got sent down," Stastny said. "He was a little fortunate that a couple guys got hurt and he took advantage of the opportunity. He started playing his style, which is a power game. He's creating space for us and making plays."

Stewart is determined to spend the rest of his career in the NHL. His older brother, Anthony, was a first-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2003, but has spent most his time in the minors. Anthony signed with the Atlanta Thrashers as a free agent last summer and is playing for the Chicago Wolves in the AHL.

"I think one year he went up and down 13 times," Chris Stewart said. "I don't ever want to go through that. That's definitely not the path I want to take."

Sacco will keep a watchful eye on Stewart, and continue to reinforce the notion that the young forward needs to play a power game. Stewart has deceptive speed for a big man and good hands, but he can't fall into the trap of believing he can be effective as a finesse player.

"Sometimes you can start thinking (that way)," Sacco said. "You don't want to lose that physicality that he has. When he came back -- he was only gone for a couple days because we had a couple  injuries -- he realized he needed to be on that fine line of playing with an edge and not hurting the team (with penalties), using his body to be more physical.

"That's why he got the opportunity to step in and play on that line with Paul. He's still young, but it's his third year as a pro and he knows what's expected. There are no grey areas; it's pretty black and white with him."
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