Portage's own Dean Stewart is enjoying his first season as a full-time American Hockey League player. The defenceman has six points this season with the Manitoba Moose, who have played quite well through 26 games.
"The entire group just buying into the way our coaches and the organization want us to play. I think that's why we've had success, especially as of late. Playing to our identity as a team, which is getting the puck behind their D (defencemen) and getting in on the forecheck," Stewart explains. "We have a good group of heavy forwards, and once they get it back to us, we have some mobile D, and we can get a five-man cycle going in the offensive zone. I think that's been hard for other teams to contain."
Stewart started last season in the ECHL with the Wichita Thunder, where he had 11 points in 27 games. He was called up to the Moose in the second half of the year and ended up with nine points in 20 games.
This season, having the opportunity to start the year in his home province, Stewart says he's much more confident and comfortable. With his coaches and teammates knowing what he's capable of, Stewart hasn't been afraid to take some chances on the ice and knows they won't look at him differently after a bad shift.
The 24-year-old spent five and a half seasons playing hockey in the United States, spending four years in the NCAA with the University of Nebraska-Omaha and then moving on to Wichita. He says it's been a blessing to be so close to home this year.
"That's been great. I've had quite a bit of friends and family come to most of the home games, I'd say. That's really nice," Stewart continues. "Everybody that's been coming to watch has been super good to me too. Nobody is asking too much of me. It's nice that I get to play close to home but people are respecting that this is my full-time job now, and I have obligations that I need to take care of."
For some athletes, playing with friends or family in the crowd can add extra pressure but that hasn't been the case for Stewart. He says his parents have been in the stands a ton wherever he's played, so he says that never makes too much of a difference but being a Terrier also helped him in this area.
"I played in Portage in junior, so a lot of people would be at those games. Omaha wasn't too far away, so I had a few buddies coming down here and there. Playing against North Dakota every year, I had a bunch of people that would come to those games," says Stewart. "At this point in my career, I'm not too concerned with who might be in the crowd watching, especially at this level. Every single game, there's NHL GMs (General Managers) and scouts, so when you think about it, your friends and family being there isn't nearly as nerve-wracking as those guys, and they're there every night."
Stewart played 75 games with the Terriers over the course of two seasons and put up a total of 28 points. Where he really excelled with the Dogs was the postseason in 2016, as he averaged a point-per-game. That performance was impressive enough for him to be noticed by the Arizona Coyotes, who used a seventh-round pick on Stewart in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
The University of Omaha-Nebraska also was dazzled by the Portager's play in 2015-16 and granted him a scholarship. Stewart talks about the most important lessons he learned in the NCAA.
"Learning how to be a pro. When I was playing in Portage, I was only 16 and 17. My mom was cooking for me and doing my laundry," Stewart explains. "So, it was a bit of an eye-opener when I got to school. It's crazy to think how much I changed things in the four years. My first year, things like eating habits and how much I was sleeping, when you're 18, you just don't care about that stuff. By the time I was a senior, we had a lot of guys already come in and turn pro. So, I picked up things from them, and my coaches played pro, so they were really helpful with that stuff."
Now that he's become a pro hockey player himself, Stewart says sustained success is all about your choices. While he eats out and stays out late on occasion, the defenceman says he has to keep his job in mind at all times.
"Almost all of your life choices are based around hockey. Even in the summer, when I'm two months away from playing, and my family is going on a trip to Florida but I don't want to take a week off from training and skating," Stewart shares. "Your whole life revolves around being a hockey player and being a pro. At this level, that's what it comes to for better and for worse. It's a pretty fun job getting to play hockey every day but you have to make sacrifices."
Stewart and the Moose will have 46 games left in the regular season when they return from the holidays on December 30 against the Abbotsford Canucks.