Brotherly influence got Avs' Stewart back into hockey
It's not hard to envision Chris Stewart grabbing passes from Kyle Orton, rather than Paul Stastny. At 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, the Colorado Avalanche power forward is built like the Denver Broncos' 6-3, 257-pound tight end, Daniel Graham.
While Stewart looks like a natural on skates -- especially after his 28-goal season in 2009-10 -- for a while, his future looked more frozen tundra than frozen water.
Stewart walked away from hockey at the age of 16. He shifted his focus to football and track, and trying to earning a college scholarship rather than an Ontario Hockey League draft spot.
"I'm from Toronto, and from definitely a more multi-cultural, urban neighborhood, and football was the thing," Stewart told NHL.com. "I was bigger at the time too, and it just made more sense. Financially it was costing my parents a lot of money (to play hockey), and football is a lot cheaper. I have five younger sisters that I had to worry about, too. They were getting to the age where they wanted to do stuff, and I thought it made more sense to lean toward football at the time."
Stewart also has an older brother, Anthony, and it was some brotherly advice that re-calibrated Chris' focus back to the ice.
""I'm from Toronto, and from definitely a more multi-cultural, urban neighborhood, and football was the thing. I was bigger at the time too, and it just made more sense. Financially it was costing my parents a lot of money (to play hockey), and football is a lot cheaper. I have five younger sisters that I had to worry about, too. They were getting to the age where they wanted to do stuff, and I thought it made more sense to lean toward football at the time." --Chris Stewart
Anthony Stewart, a 2003 first-round draft pick by the Florida Panthers, was home from his season with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs when he caught Chris playing hockey for his high school team.
"My dad needed a ride to his game, and I happened to be home so I drove him over, watched (Chris) play and saw every shift he would take it end to end," Anthony told NHL.com. "He was still in football shape so he was heavy and he got tired. Seeing him play at that weight and having that skill, it opened my eyes that he could still play."
Anthony and his father sat Chris down and told him that if lost the extra football weight he had gained -- he was playing tight end and on the defensive line -- Anthony could get Chris a tryout with the Frontenacs. Working in Chris' favor was his late birthday, which meant if he really wanted a hockey career, he had two seasons to build himself into an NHL prospect.
"If it was a year later we wouldn't be having this conversation," said Anthony.
Chris listened to his brother and got back into hockey shape.
"That summer I was probably closer to 260 (pounds) at the time and in two months I probably cut down to 238, 240 … which is definitely still heavy for me at the time but acceptable with the circumstances," Chris said.
When he got to Kingston, GM Larry Mavety told Chris exactly the role he'd be filling if he made the team.
"Mav was straight up with me," he said. "He said we don't need any skilled guys, I'm looking for a fighter/energy guy. I said no problem. I was always a rough kid growing up, I had no problem shedding the gloves. That's how I made the team."
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He started in that role, but didn't stay there long. When Anthony left the team for the 2005 World Junior Championship, Chris got more playing time and took advantage. He scored at a point-per-game pace, and when Anthony returned, Chris was moved into a third-line role, with Cory Emmerton and Bobby Hughes. He finished the season tied for fourth on the team with 18 goals -- and if that wasn't enough motivation, he got more over the summer.
"It was one of those pre-draft lists, and I was (rated) fifth or sixth round, and that was never achievable to me," Chris said. "I was pumped. I was like, 'wow, fifth or sixth round,' I might actually get drafted into the NHL."
The next season, with Anthony and a few other players departed for the pros, Chris, Emmerton and Hughes became Kingston's first line, and they excelled. Chris was second on the team with 37 goals and 87 points, and was taken by the Avalanche with the 18th pick of the 2006 Entry Draft.
Chris spent one more season in Kingston, then split last season between the Avs and the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters. He began last season in the AHL, but didn't stay there long. He was called up Oct. 22 and never went back, finishing first on the team with 28 goals and second with 64 points. He added 3 goals in six Stanley Cup Playoff games.
He's continued that strong play early this season, with a team-leading 3 goals -- including a rocket past Martin Brodeur for the game-winning goal in Friday's 3-2 win in New Jersey.
While Chris has been succeeding, however, Anthony was having a difficult time finding a full-time NHL job. He spent three seasons shuffling between Florida and AHL Rochester, and while he spent all of 2008-09 with the Panthers, he had just 2 goals and 7 points in 59 games. He signed last season with the Thrashers, but spent all season in the AHL. He made the team in training camp and so far has been skating on a line with Evander Kane and Rich Peverley. He doesn't have a point in three games, but he's playing 13:54 per game, nearly double his best previous ice-time average (7:38 in 2008-09).
He took full advantage of that ice time Friday. Hours after Chris helped the Avs beat the Devils, Anthony scored his first NHL hat trick to help the Thrashers to a 5-4 victory against the Ducks.
"It feels great," Stewart told reporters Friday night. "I can't shut it down right now. I'm happy to contribute any way I can and I am still trying to prove myself in this League. So any way I can contribute is great."
Anthony is learning his way of contributing at the NHL level has to be more than just scoring pretty goals. He was an elite junior scorer -- he had 238 points in 248 junior games with Kingston -- but is working on adding the same level of grit that Chris brings.
"He's probably the strongest person I know," Chris said of Anthony, who measures 6-3 and 230 pounds. "I told him some guys aren't going to want to fight you, but if you're on your game playing the way you play, guys are going to have to come get you. No matter what, you just have to have that edge. You're so strong, you have to have that edge and know you can physically rip a guy's head off. … It's not just about fighting, but that swagger around the ice, going to the net hard and stirring it up at the net and sticking up for your teammates, little stuff like that. That's the stuff that's going to keep you in the lineup every night."
"The NHL is all about finding a role and filling it," said Anthony. "Everyone wants to score back in junior. Being a first-round pick you're expected to score, but it hasn't worked out for me that way. I'm a firm believer in timing and where you are. I have an opportunity in Atlanta to find that scoring touch. At the same time, I still have to do that extra stuff -- picking up for teammates, fighting here and there. It's a bit of role change, but if you want to stick in the NHL it's something you have to do."
That willingness to fight could take an interesting twist come Nov. 30 and Dec. 10, when the Avalanche meet the Thrashers.
"We haven't fought, but we almost came to blows in the minors when he was in (Lake Erie) and I was in Rochester," Anthony said. "It was almost there. I don't think it would happen, but you never know."
Whatever does happen, it won't change their relationship. The brothers are best friends and speak daily. Some of that talk involves criticizing each other's play. It's easy for Anthony; not so much for Chris.
"It's kind of awkward saying that because he still is my bigger brother," Chris said. "He's watched what I've done so he knows I'm just trying to help him out. Just last night I caught the box score on the game (Tuesday against the Kings) and he was minus-3. I said you can't be minus-3 no matter what. He was like, 'you're right, gotta be better.'"
Anthony said it's a two-way street, but so far there hasn't been much to criticize in Chris' game -- the right wing has a goal and an assist in his first three games.
Anyway, whatever criticism Chris might have, he still knows he owes Anthony his hockey career.