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Stewart showing he belongs in Colorado

by Dan Rosen
Norman Stewart rarely had enough money to buy his two boys new hockey sticks. A pool builder by trade, the father of Colorado Avalanche rookie Chris Stewart and Florida Panthers center Anthony Stewart instead found innovative ways to keep his boys playing.

"When my brother or I broke our sticks, we didn't have much money to buy new sticks, so my dad would duct tape them back together and we would have to make it work," Chris Stewart told last week. "Little things like that make you appreciate where you came from and where you are right now."

Where Chris Stewart is now is beyond what anyone could have predicted in October.

The 21-year-old 2006 first-round draft pick (No. 18) was supposed to spend this season with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League. Recently, though, he has been seen skating as the right wing on either of the Avalanche's top two lines.

And he hasn't looked out of place, either.

"He deserved that opportunity based on how he has played," Avs coach Tony Granato told "He's got good hands. He can score and he can create space for those guys with speed and his strength. So he's got assets. I can see him as a top-line player, for sure."

He's not there consistently yet, but that's not a surprise. Stewart still is maddeningly inconsistent on the defensive end, but, as Granato said, what young player in the NHL isn't?

"He knows in our League you don't play consistent minutes unless you are reliable in that area," Granato said.

The great thing about Stewart is he's confident enough to believe he has figured out how he needs to play to be a successful NHL player. At 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, throwing his body around is a must.

"I think I've got it down to what I've got to do," Stewart said. "I'm the prototype power forward with a big body, so I have to go in there to use it. I have to be one of those guys leading the team in hits every night, and I find the nights when I stick to that mold are the nights when I produce offensively, too."

Added Granato: "He's got the build and the make-up of a power forward. He's still young. He still needs the experience to understand his role and how dominant he can be in certain areas."

Stewart only got his opportunity this season in Colorado because of injuries. He was called up Dec. 5, two days after Joe Sakic was put on injured reserve with back ailments. He had 11 points in 19 AHL games before getting the call.

He scored his first goal in his third game, when he played 16:07. He scored another three nights later in his fourth game. He had his first Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, an assist, and a fight -- Jan. 21 against Los Angeles.

Granato lately has been using him sparingly on the power play, and through 37 games, he has 9 goals and 7 assists.

"You can see that when he's moving out there, his legs are flying and he's hard to stop," Avs center Paul Stastny told "He's got so much speed, whether he's flying down the wing with the puck or if he's a forechecker. He's a big force to be reckoned with."

It hasn't all been a walk in the park.

Stewart recalls learning a hard lesson on his first shift of his first game, Dec. 5 at Dallas.

The message from Granato before the game couldn't have been any clearer. Do not, under any circumstance, dump the puck straight at Marty Turco.

"Coach said when you dump the puck in you either have to hard-chip it in or go around the net because Turco likes to play the puck," Stewart recalled. "He really emphasized that before the game."

So what did he do? Yeah, you guessed it.

"My first shift I went to dump it in. I thought I rimmed it hard around the boards, but Turco got out there and stopped it and moved it up the ice," Stewart said with a smile on his face. "I came back to the bench and coach was like, 'Did you hear what I said?' He kind of cracked a smile because he knew I was so nervous that I wasn't paying attention to detail so much."

He fell down twice on his first shift and coughed the puck up to Turco, but he has played with fewer restrictions and nerves, and he's showing Granato and the Colorado executive brass that he belongs in the NHL.

"A lot of guys went down and that's one of the reasons I got my shot," Stewart said. "I knew they'd come back eventually, so I really had to step my game up and show them that I belonged in the lineup regardless."

Stewart has been overcoming challenges since his days growing up on the tough streets of his Toronto neighborhood. Anthony is his older brother, but they have five younger sisters. Their mother, Sue, was a stay-at-home mom, so dad had to bring home the bacon.

They didn't have much, but the Stewarts got by thanks to their closeness.

"We made it work," Stewart said. "We had a close family, and now that me and my brother are in the NHL we get to give our family things we never had before."

Stewart wasn't selected in the Ontario Hockey League draft, but he got a tryout with the Kingston Frontenacs in 2004 because Anthony, Kingston's captain at the time, urged management to give his younger brother a look.

He made the team as a fourth-line forward, and finished with 18 goals and 12 assists. By 2006 he was an NHL first-round pick and Kingston's captain.

"I started out fighting and doing all the little things to try to stick around," Stewart said. "Growing up I was always a skilled player, but I didn't really grow until I was 16 or 17, so as I started to get more ice time I started to develop and mature as a hockey player."

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