For many hockey players growing up, the dream is to some day play in the NHL. For Portager Dean Stewart that dream is still alive as he continues to rise the ranks of pro hockey.
This past Saturday, Stewart was called up to the Manitoba Moose where he made his AHL debut in a 5-4 victory over Texas. The smooth skating defender had been on the radar of the Moose after signing with the club at the start of the year. When the need arose, the call went out for him to get to Austin that night. Stewart started the day in Wichita, Kansas where he had been playing with his ECHL team, the Wichita Thunder and the former Terrier says it made for a whirlwind day.
"It was pretty interesting actually. I was on a road trip and got the call that I was going up to play for the Moose. I had to quickly fly out of Kansas City and got to Texas about 2 hours before the game. I ended up playing so it was actually pretty nice the way it worked out. I didn't really have too much pressure obviously just getting off the plane. I think for me it was a good first game and I'm glad I got it out of the way"
So far, in his second season, the defenseman has 4 goals and 11 assists in 22 games in the ECHL and he is now hoping to rack up some points with the Moose. Stewart remains with the team as they get ready for a game tonight in Milwaukee. Stewart says the team wants him to keep playing the same way and focus on what he's been doing all season.
"They know what type of player I am and they don't want me to change that. They've been making me feel comfortable and making it clear to me that they want me to be that same player that I was at school and with Wichita. I think that's good obviously, having that confidence from the coaches. I won't be changing my style of play too much while here and hopefully they like my game enough to keep me around for a while. Obviously, you always want to play at the highest level that you possibly can. "
As far as adjusting to the higher level of play, Stewart said it wasn't too difficult.
"It's nothing too crazy. I had actually played against quite a few guys from Texas while I was in University. I think every time you move up a level, the players just keep getting better. There were a couple of differences between the American League and the ECHL, things happened faster and guys are just a little bit quicker. A lot of little things like guys talking more, not as many mistakes being made, there's more passes on the tape and when they're not on the tape guys are really good at picking them up. So yeah, I think it was an adjustment, but not a huge one, it was a good first game."
Stewart saw limited action with the Terriers when they won the National Championship in 2015 but was a big part of the team that repeated as champions the following year. That year he was drafted in the 7th round of the NHL entry draft by the Arizona Coyotes and even though he had 3 years of Junior eligibility left he went south to play NCAA Division 1 hockey with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. After 4 seasons and earning a degree Stewart jumped to the ECHL. Although a return to the league is a possibility, Stewart is hoping to use this window with the Moose to make a good enough impression that leads to much more down the road. When recalling his times with the Terriers he credited the coaching staff for helping bring him along and shared his thoughts about the team.
"The one thing that definitely sticks out for me was how much fun I had. I went to school when I was 18, but I would have loved to be able to play 4 or 5 years with them. I was having such a blast on the hockey part of things. Getting to play in front of friends and family and getting to play with a lot of my good friends. I just have such great memories from playing for the Terriers and can't say enough good things about the organization."