Heavy snow fell as Norman Stewart and his two sons made their usual Saturday morning trek to the hockey rink near their Toronto home.
The family didn’t own a car at the time. Some weeks, they couldn’t afford bus fare, either.
Stewart doesn’t remember whether the bus was late or canceled because of the snowstorm that particular day, just that they started the 2-mile walk to practice on foot, hockey gear in tow.
Along the way, a car pulled beside them. The man told them to hop in and he’d drive them wherever they needed.
“In the hockey circles, you get exposed to some genuine people,” Stewart said. “That Saturday morning, he became a Good Samaritan to the family.”
Chris Stewart was a young kid back then, barely old enough to remember every detail of his family’s struggle, but he always knew that hockey conquered hardship.
Raised in a tough section of Toronto, Stewart’s family lost its home and for two years lived in a seedy motel frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes. The motel doubled as a government shelter for families in need.
Stewart, his parents, older brother Anthony and five younger sisters crammed into several tiny rooms. The two boys and three of their sisters shared one room.
“The boys got the bed,” Chris said.
He chuckles at the memory. Sure, his childhood was hard but he wouldn’t change anything because of the foundation it provided him.
Stewart reflected on those life lessons over lunch after a recent Wild practice. He’s still relatively new to the team, but he’s already become a fan favorite because of his impact as a second-line winger, his imposing presence (6-2, 231 pounds) and his willingness to stick up for teammates.
The Wild gave Buffalo a future second-round pick to acquire Stewart, a free agent after the season. Stewart is happy in Minnesota and the team is pleased with him, but his future will be determined after the season.
He doesn’t seem concerned. He views important life decisions from the perspective of where he’s been.
“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said. “It brought me and my family together. My sisters are my backbone. Everything I do is for them. You see where we are today, it’s made me appreciate everything.”
Love and hard work can only provide so much
Norman, a native of Jamaica, arrived in Montreal at age 23 in search of a better life.
“The way I was brought up in the islands,” he said, “you have to work for what you want. No money drops down from the sky for you.”
Cricket was his sport of choice. He knew nothing of hockey. He immediately fell in love with the game watching the Canadiens collect Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s.
“He loves Jacques [Lemaire],” said Chris, referring to his dad’s favorite player, the former Wild coach. “Loves the trap, loves the left wing lock.”
Norman married Susan, moved to Toronto and started a family — seven kids, including twin daughters at the end of the line.
Norman was a handyman, Susan a homemaker. Norman took work wherever he could find it. Money was always tight.
Chris described his family as “happy” because it only lacked in material items, not love.
“We didn’t always have the nicest things, but we made ends meet,” he said. “My dad is a very prideful man, so I’ve got the utmost respect for him.”
The love of a family doesn’t always protect kids from the cruel words of other kids, though. Chris never wanted anyone to know where he lived, nervous to be labeled “motel kids.”
“At that age, you don’t understand that it’s out of your control, and there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You’re just thinking you don’t want to be picked on or judged.”
Hockey became the boys’ lifeline in a tough environment. Close friends chose a different path. Some went to jail. The Stewart boys chose hockey after making a promise to their mom.
“That was our ticket out,” Anthony said. “People say hockey is life. It actually was our life because we didn’t have pretty much anything else to do.”
Anthony was a star player growing up. Three years older than Chris, he possessed the kind of natural skill and talent that attracted offers from different associations and prep schools. He seemed destined for professional hockey.
Chris idolized his brother, but his success made Chris’ own path more complicated. Chris wasn’t as big, or as talented. He didn’t attract the same attention in the hockey community.
“I used to get jealous,” Chris said. “I kind of shied away from hockey because I wasn’t as good as him. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
He even quit hockey for one year at age 15 and played football. He was a standout 265-pound tight end, talented enough that some thought he could play college football in the United States.
He felt a “void” in his life that year. He missed hockey. Stewart shed 30 pounds and resumed his career the following year, earning a spot in the Ontario Hockey League as a fighter.
“I was fighting everyone,” he said. “That’s what I had to do to get in.”
Better days ahead
Both brothers eventually became NHL first-round draft picks. Anthony went No. 25 overall to the Florida Panthers in 2003; Colorado selected Chris with the 18th pick in 2006.
Anthony played for three teams in six seasons and has been out of the league since 2012. He recently played in Russia and hopes to sign a minor-league contract with an NHL team next season.
Chris is now on his fourth team in seven seasons, a curious development for a player with his combination of size and skill. He’s been criticized in the past for being inconsistent or a wrong fit for a particular situation.
Stewart offers nothing disparaging about his previous teams, but he describes his new home as “refreshing.” The organization loves Stewart’s contributions on the ice and the way he’s clicked with his new teammates.
Stewart packs a punch as a power forward, but he’s also displayed a surprising burst. He refers to his speed as “coming in hot” and credits his work with an Olympic track coach in the summers.
“He brings the total package,” Anthony said.
Nobody knows Stewart’s game better than his dad, who watches hockey religiously and considers himself an expert. Norman never misses a Wild game on television and almost always wears Wild clothing that Chris had shipped to Toronto.
“If the Minnesota coach wants a scouting report,” Norman joked, “he can call me.”
The family suffered a devastating blow eight years ago. Susan suffered a fatal heart attack, just as Chris’ pro hockey career was starting, leaving Norman to raise five teenage daughters by himself.
“That ain’t easy,” said Chris, who is married with twin 10-month-old sons.
His sisters are now ages 25, 24, 23 and 22-year-old twins. Four of them live at home with Norman.
The house was a gift from Chris. Two years ago, he took his family house shopping in an upscale section of Toronto.
They fell in love with a fully furnished five bedroom house with plenty of space. Chris told them to leave everything behind, even their beds.
“It was like a dream come true,” said Sarah, his oldest sister. “We walked in and we were in tears. We couldn’t believe it. We were like, ‘This is for us. For real?’ ”
Stewart also paid college tuition for one of his sisters and co-signed a loan for another. He enjoys doing nice things for them because, as he says, they’ll always be his backbone.
“He does everything that you could possibly want and more,” Sarah said. “It’s always on his mind to get us on our feet and make sure we’re good.”