A Portage la Prairie native is even more confident for the 2022-23 campaign after gracing the ice with the Winnipeg Jets Young Stars Classic team. Dean Stewart was one of eight defencemen selected to the squad, and he says any time there's a chance to represent an NHL team, you have to take the opportunity.
"Especially being from Portage, growing up when the Jets came back and going to a couple of games every year with my dad, it was really cool. When you first put the jersey on, you think back to those moments but then once you're out there, it's just back to hockey and doing what I know I can do. I'm just trying to make a good impression with the staff here."
Stewart took part in two contests with the team during the three-game exhibition and says he felt like he fit right in with that level of competition.
"The higher level you get, the margins of improvement keep getting smaller and smaller. Last week I was in Winnipeg, and I got to skate with a good amount of the actual Jets. It's kind of crazy, they're obviously at the highest level you can get, and it's not a huge difference from playing with the (Manitoba) Moose," Stewart explains. "In some aspects, it's almost easier, just being able to play with these really good players. When you're open, they have the skills to find you, and there aren't as many breakdowns defensively. So, as a defenceman, I'm not facing as many odd-man rushes. That part of it is really nice."
Stewart says this experience has let him know that he isn't too far away from making his ultimate dream of playing in the NHL a reality if he continues his progression as a player. The defenceman adds he has spent the last few summers in Brandon, training with players in the NHL or that have played in the league, which he says was the first time he realized how feasible his aspirations actually are.
"In the season, there's guys going up and down from the Moose to the Jets all the time. I saw it firsthand last year, some of our good players getting called up and getting sent back down. It's not like they come back down and are way better than everybody, and also when they get called up, they're not necessarily the worst players on the ice either," Stewart continues. "Over the last couple of years, being around more NHL players, you definitely get more confidence from skating with those guys and seeing what they do every day. Hopefully, that can lead to helping my game improve."
Stewart has had a longer journey than most to get where he's at. The 24-year-old played with the Portage Terriers from 2014-16, putting up a point per game in the 2016 playoffs. After being drafted in the seventh round in 2016 by the Arizona Coyotes, he spent four seasons in the NCAA with the University of Nebraska Omaha where he became a captain in his senior year.
In 2020-21, Stewart moved on to the ECHL playing for the Wichita Thunder and was a Second Team All-Star while also being named to the league's All-Rookie team for putting up 36 points in 53 games. Last season, the Portager started in Wichita but was eventually called up to the Manitoba Moose, where he spent his final 20 games of the year and where he will be starting off this season.
"Everybody's path is going to be different. Mine was a little bit crazy. My final year at school was the year that got cut short because of COVID. My first-year pro was that COVID year where nobody even knew if we were going to play or what was going to happen," says Stewart. "Now being a couple of years down the line and seeing how everything played out, I really couldn't be happier. I got to meet so many good guys, and learn so much from so many different people. Coming out of school, I would've loved to have come straight to somewhere in the American Hockey League but that wasn't the case for me, and I really do think I'm better now for it."
The local defenceman notes many players in the NHL played extensive careers in the AHL prior to making it to the highest level. He says his teammate Jeff Mallot signed with the Moose two years ago and after having a good season, was then signed to the Jets and was called up for a few games last season.
"I think it's just a longer process than people think. Obviously, there are some guys that are first-rounders (first-round picks) that play a few years of junior and are off to the NHL, but for a majority of guys, it's a process. I'm in the middle of it right now," Stewart continues. "It's great to come to things like this where there are so many staff members, coaches, and development guys here that want to help you become a better player and want you to get to the next level. So, I'm just trying to soak as much in as I can from all of these guys."
Stewart is excited for the opportunity to play out a full season with the Moose this year and notes he's ready to put his best foot forward.
"There's a bit of a different feel this year. Coming back and already knowing a good amount of the guys, it's quite a bit less stressful for me at this point. It's tough sometimes when you have to play with 20 new faces and have new coaches, new development staff, and all of that. It's really nice this year knowing I don't have to try and prove as much to people. I know now, if I make a mistake or if something happens, my coaches and teammates won't think, 'This guy is no good.' They already know what I can do and what my game is. So, it's going to make it a bit easier to come in and do exactly that, just play my game and try to help the Moose win as much as I can."
The Portager was thrilled to get a taste of the next level this past weekend and notes that has only made him hungrier for a real opportunity with the best of the best. Stewart and the Moose will be spending the next three weeks gearing up for their season opener on October 15.