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View from above gives Stewart some perspective

by Lindsay Kramer

After being a healthy scratch, Stewart registered six goals and three assists in the seven games following his return to the lineup.
Even when he comes a little late to the party, Lake Erie rookie power forward Chris Stewart is learning how to have fun catching up.

Like developing into a good pro, for instance. Or updating his taste in television shows.

On a recent post-practice afternoon, Stewart and roommate David Jones were sprawled in front of their television, watching a DVD of the popular show Lost.

Season 1, that is.

Stewart apparently was one of the few people in North America who never had seen the show, and he wanted to check out what all the fuss what about.

“I never really got into it,’’ he said. “You tend more to play video games in juniors than watch TV. Some of (his teammates) are all the way in Season 4.’’

Stewart is proving he knows how to make up ground, though, especially where it counts.

On Nov. 10 and 11, Lake Erie coach Joe Sacco made the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Stewart a healthy scratch because he was playing, well, sort of lost. At the time, Colorado’s 2006 first-round pick had one assist in nine games.

In the seven games since returning to the lineup, Stewart has responded with six goals and three assists. It’s kind of like he hit the fast-forward button on the DVD player of his career.

“It was a big eye-opener, to let you know you can’t (just) show up and play,’’ said Stewart, 20. “It makes you want to play that much more. I knew for sure I wanted to be in the lineup, and I wanted to do something.’’

The template is there, which can be good for an example but tough when it comes to expectations. Stewart’s older brother, Anthony, was a 2003 first-rounder for Florida who now plays in Rochester.

Chris is about a half-inch bigger than his big brother. Regardless – in the pro game at least – Anthony casts a larger shadow. He potted 13 goals for the Amerks last year and has seven already this season.

“We are two different players, completely,’’ Chris said. “He might be the better skater, but he might not have the best hands in the world. So there’s a balance.’’

If so, it was tipped when the two squared off Nov. 23. Chris was pointless, but Anthony had a goal and an assist as Rochester beat Lake Erie, 3-2.

“You really want to get up there and show him up a bit. I guess he got the better of me,’’ Chris said. “He didn’t really say anything. There wasn’t that many chirps going on out there.’’

Besides, both Stewarts learned long ago that action gets a lot more accomplished than yapping. Behind them in the family are five younger sisters. Growing up in Toronto, that put a premium on mobility at the dinner table and sharp elbows when fighting for bathroom time.

“It’s kind of like a zoo,’’ Chris said. “People coming, going. It’s a really huge household. Every dinner is a family-sized dinner. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Never forget where you came from. That motivates you every day.’’

By his own estimation, drifting away from the basics of such survival is what cost Chris at the start of this season.

Sensing the urgency of his new level, he figured he had to step up the razzle-dazzle as he moved up in competition. That took him away from the meat-and-potatoes effort which made him a top prospect in the first place.

“He was working (but) not the way we thought, as a staff, that he could,’’ Sacco said.

The two-game rest might have knocked more air out of Stewart’s gut, save for the fact that he was bracing himself for just such an occurrence.

“I kind of saw it coming. He asked me if I had any questions,’’ Stewart said. “I knew my play wasn’t acceptable.’’

So his education circled back to learning by example. Stewart used his seat in the press box to zoom in on individual elements of the game, like defensive-zone positioning and angles of plays along the walls.

Lake Erie coach Joe Sacco now sees a big player who pushes himself, one who comes out on the winning side of the one-on-one tests of wills.

“Sometimes, for young players, it doesn’t hurt for them to watch a couple of games,’’ Sacco said. “They can put themselves in situations you don’t see on the ice. A credit to him, he came back and he responded very well.’’

It was like a drip-drip-drip that opened to a flood. His first game back, Stewart was point-less. In his second contest, Nov. 17 against Toronto, he threw down three goals and an assist.

“Once you get comfortable at this level and score at this level, the game becomes easier,’’ Stewart said. “Joe just wanted me to focus more on being a power forward, being harder to play against. I made my game more simple and got way more chances.’’

Sacco now sees a big player who pushes himself to play that way, one who comes out on the winning side of the one-on-one tests of wills.

“I think it was a matter of Chris identifying his role and what he needs to do to be successful,’’ Sacco said. “We know he has a good amount of skill already. For a big man, he can move very well once he gets going. And as a big man, he’s hard to stop.’’

Could that momentum carry him up to or past his brother as a player? An observer other than Chris will have to evaluate that.

“I guess everyone wants to be the better player,’’ he said. “But only time will tell. I’ll probably not comment there. It’s all timing, whoever gets the better situation.’’

Sacco will take his chances with however Chris turns out. Whether that’s sooner or later.

“There’s a package there that needs to be completed,’’ Sacco said. “It’s going to take time. Right now, he’s headed in the right direction.’’

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