It has been quite a career thus far for Penguins head athletic trainer Chris Stewart. Not only has the Johnstown, Pa. native had the opportunity to work for the team he grew up rooting for, but he has also been fortunate enough to capture two Stanley Cups in four-plus National Hockey League seasons.
|Photo Courtesy of Johnstown Chiefs. |
Stewart added to his list of accomplishments on Friday when he worked the 1,000th game of his professional career during the Penguins 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. Befitting his nature, Stewart was somewhat reluctant to talk about his milestone.
“I knew but somehow it got out,” said Stewart of reaching 1,000 games. “Now everybody is writing about it. It is an accomplishment. There is a lot of time spent.”
To say Stewart paid his dues on the way to the pinnacle of his profession would be an understatement. He attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania for both his undergrad and post-graduate studies, helping the football team as an assistant trainer.
Stewart first broke into the professional ranks in his hometown with the Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League. It was his first foray into the hockey world.
“I didn’t have any ice hockey experience prior to that,” Stewart said. “It took a while to catch onto the sport. I really wasn’t in depth on the rules of hockey.”
He would spend the next nine-and-a-half years with the Chiefs before taking a job during the lockout season of 2004-05 as the head trainer for the Lowell Lock Monsters of the American Hockey League. Following the re-launch of the NHL the next year, Stewart was promoted to associate athletic trainer of the Lock Monster’s parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes.
His only year in Carolina proved to be memorable as the Hurricanes captured the 2005 Stanley Cup championship with a seven-game defeat of the Edmonton Oilers.
In an effort to boost their offense prior to that postseason run, Carolina acquired right winger Mark Recchi from the Penguins at the trading deadline. After the season it was Recchi who helped bring Stewart back home to western Pennsylvania.
“When (Carolina) traded for Recchi that year we won the Stanley Cup he said they were making changes (in Pittsburgh),” Stewart said. “I call Recs and he said he would recommend me to (general manager) Ray (Shero). Fortunately Ray offered me the position.”
Needless to say, becoming head trainer for the Penguins realized a lifelong goal for Stewart.
“I am only an hour down the road in Johnstown so yeah this is a dream,” he said. “We were black and gold no matter what – Penguins, Pirates and Steelers.”
Coming to the Penguins has allowed Stewart to once again team up with equipment manager Dana Heinze, as the two worked together in Johnstown. The two have shared many great memories together.
"Dana (Heinze), I remember riding on buses with him," Stewart said. "We would ride eight hours to play in a different city. Who knew we would be back here again."
With the Penguins Stewart was able to once again capture the ultimate trophy in professional sports when the Penguins secured the franchise’s third Stanley Cup with their defeat of the Detroit Red Wings in June.
|Photo courtesy of Johnstown Chiefs |
“I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” said Stewart of winning two championships in his first four seasons. “They were lucky situations I’ve been in. That is the only way I can explain it.”
Stewart also had trouble explaining an eventful first quarter of this campaign, which has seen him make a potentially life-saving decision to send Penguins President David Morehouse to the hospital in San Jose on Nov. 7, as well his having to deal with a rash of injuries which at one point in mid-November saw nine regulars out of the lineup, including five of the team’s top six defensemen.
Morehouse and Stewart were preparing to board the Penguins’ team charter headed for Boston when Morehouse disclosed alarming symptoms of a heart attack while talking with Stewart.
“We were just talking and he started explaining some of the symptoms he was having to me,” Stewart said. “I said you can’t fly. We have to get you checked out.
“All I did was make a right decision on where he needed to be to get checked out. It turns out that it was the right thing to do for him.”
Later, Morehouse suffered a heart attack and was treated at a local San Jose hospital. If Morehouse had boarded the plane, it could have been a life-threatening situation but thanks to Stewart’s quick reaction, Morehouse has been able to make a full recovery.
|Stewart comes to the aid of Sergei Gonchar is last year's postseason (Getty Images) |
As far as the team’s injury situation, Stewart says he has dealt with similar scenarios in the past, but he’s never seen a sequence where so many key figures departed the lineup in such a flurry.
“This year is unusual because of who it is and when they got hurt and how. It just progressed for six straight games where we lost a guy. It is part of the game, it is going to happen. You can’t control those things.”
Many of the walking wounded have since returned to action, and most of the remaining casualties appear on the fast track to returning. Stewart refused to take the credit for helping the injured Penguins return so quickly, deflecting praise to those surrounding him.
“We have a great staff with Mark Mortland, Scott (Adams) and Kades (Mike Kadar) here. We battle through it and get the guys back.”
Prior to the Penguins home game with the New York Rangers on Saturday night Stewart was honored for his achievement with a presentation from Shero.
Stewart was hard-pressed to single out any particular memories from his first 1,000 professional contests, instead choosing to focus on the relationships he has built during his career.
“With so many cities, so many rinks and so many people there are memories you just can’t ever forget … You watch grown men play a game from a good seat. The guys are great. They are fun to be around. It is a great working environment.
“At the end of the day it’s about what you have accomplished in your life in terms of friendships and the relationship you make. I have made a lot of them along the way. That is probably the best part of this job.”