Play-Off Hero Stewart Sticks With Blaze
Just days after helping the Coventry Blaze lift their first trophy in 5 years, netminder Brian Stewart put pen to paper on a new 2-year contract with the British Elite League club.
For Blaze fans it could be described as the proverbial ‘cherry on top’ of a season that saw them recover from a disastrous first half to become play-off champions – with the former Adirondack Phantoms stopper at the very heart of that turn around.
The British Columbia native quickly became a hit with Blaze fans this season – walking away with the ‘Coach’s Player of the Year’, ‘Player of the Year’, ‘Players’ Player of the Year’ and ‘Best Defenceman’ awards at the club’s end of season dinner – but admits he knew little about the Elite League before joining last summer.
“I was going to go back to my team in Germany, but things didn’t quite work out” Stewart told InGoal Magazine “Over the summer I heard Coventry was interested but I didn’t know much about the Elite League. I looked it up, saw that there were already a lot of great players in the league and so decided I’d sign with Coventry – even though I still didn’t really know what to expect…as it turns out, I’m pretty happy with that decision!”
Stewart recorded two shut outs in the clubs first three league games, helping Coventry make a solid start to the new campaign. But a dip in form during October led to seven losses in ten games as the club began to slide down the table.
“We had a decent start to the season, but then October came and things just turned bad” Stewart said “It felt like we were losing almost every game. I still felt my game was ok; it was just that we weren’t scoring. We were up against good teams in a tough division. Sheffield, Belfast, Nottingham and Cardiff – arguably the best four teams in the league. It was difficult.”
Despite an impressive home win against Belfast on November 2nd, back-to-back defeats at the hands of Braehead proved to be the final nail in the coffin of Head Coach Marc LeFebvre, who was dismissed on November 19th.
Former Phoenix Coyotes forward Steven Goertzen took temporary charge of the club before ex-San Antonio Rampage and Medvescak Zagreb coach Chuck Weber took the reigns on December 1st – an appointment that proved pivotal in the clubs season.
“It took time, but he (Weber) worked out all the kinks and we all bought in to his system.” Stewart recalls “Ultimately, we started playing better hockey and really started to enjoy it again. It obviously worked out in the end!”
The 42-year old’s influence on Coventry was plain to see by the season’s end – but Stewart admits it took a little time before things truly fell in to place for the Blaze.
“To have a guy like that in charge, it’s awesome. I’ve played in the AHL and ECHL, and even at that level Chuck would be a great coach. But when he came in, he wanted to change things and, honestly, it took a couple of weeks for everybody to buy in.
“But once they did, it felt like there was no looking back. We gave up far fewer scoring chances and cut our ‘goals against average’ down by almost a goal per game. As a result, we started winning one goal games instead of losing them.”
“On average, we still gave up about 35 shots per game – but they were different shots. We limited the scoring chances, and that was massively important. I can take a shot from the blue line, no problem, but if there’s a guy with a great scoring chance – like a back door play – obviously there’s a greater chance they’re going to go in.”
“Chuck had so much to do with cutting out those kinds of quality chances – it made a huge difference”
The Blaze finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning seven of their last ten league games to finish 6th; setting up a show down with Erhardt Conference rivals Nottingham.
Stewart stopped 81 of the 85 shots he faced across the two legs, leading the Blaze to a 5-4 aggregate win over the 2013 league and play-off winners – a result few would have predicted despite the clubs good form heading in to the tie.
“There’s always pressure heading in to these games” Stewart said “But we all stuck together. We’re a pretty close knit group, and really felt the pressure was actually on the other teams. We came in as the 6th placed team and just went out there and played our system.”
“The guys were great, I just had to do my job – and I think it’s fair to say everything worked out.”
A semi-final showdown with Belfast saw Stewart star once again, stopping 39 shots in a 3-2 shoot out victory as the Blaze booked their place in the EIHL Grand Final.
Facing league winners Sheffield, the Blaze were out shot 24-17 through the first 40 minutes, but took a 4-0 lead before Mathieu Roy’s third period brace set up a tense finale. But Northern Michigan University alumni Stewart and the Blaze defence held firm however, sealing the clubs second Elite League play-off crown.
Posting .923 save percentage whilst facing a league high 2,392 shots, it’s fair to say Coventry’s fairy tale turn around may never have been were it not for Stewart – but the former Bakersfield netminder took the increased work load in his stride.
“It’s a bit of a change – but I love playing, so it wasn’t really a big deal for me” said Stewart on going from 49 games with EV Landshut last season to 68 with the Blaze this year.
“It’s obviously tiring, a bit of fatigue sets in – but if you want it badly enough, you just feel good for the whole time you’re out there”
The increased work load wasn’t the only change Stewart noticed between DEL2 and the EIHL.
“Going from North America to Germany, I noticed a big difference – but then coming to the Elite League…for a European league, it’s probably the most ‘North American’ you’re going to see!”
Stewart is not the first to draw the comparison between the the EIHL and the ‘rough and tumble’ of the North American game, and that suites him just fine.
“We’re playing what I would say is very close to a North American style of hockey here. For me personally, I like that a lot better – it’s what I grew up with after all.”
Stylistic preferences aren’t the only positive Stewart sees in the British Elite League though, and knows a repeat of this year’s success will be tough for the team.
“I think this league is going in the right direction, so many good players sign in this league every year – I’m really happy to have signed here for two more years”
“I just hope we get some of the guys we need back, and make some strong signings this summer. We’ll come in with high expectations, but they do a good job in Coventry in looking after their players.”
“I’m hoping to just come back, play my game and hopefully we can get going from the very start and pick up right where we left off this season”
Stewart’s place in Blaze fans’ hearts is assured following his performances this year; and the giant netminder admits his somewhat energetic style is heavily influenced by one of the sports greats.
“I became a goalie in 1998. I was 13-years old and my dad wouldn’t put me in there until then!” Stewart says with a smile “But I was already a die hard Dominik Hasek fan by then. He was playing with the Buffalo Sabres and I’d say he’s probably the one that made me fall in love with being a goaltender”
At 6’5″, Stewart is part of the growing trend for tall netminders across the sport, but the acrobatics and determination Hasek displayed during his career remain major influences on the Canadian stopper.
“You can be big and tall, but as my old goalie coach used to say ‘it’s all about puck stopping ability’.”
“No matter how big you are, you have to have that desire to stop the puck. You can have good technique and so on, but you only need to look at a guy like Hasek – he wasn’t pretty to watch, but he had the greatest desire to stop pucks of any goalie to ever play in the NHL.”
“That’s really what it’s all about – you can look weird when you’re out there, but if you’re keeping the puck out of the net it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. I truly believe that.”
With a plethora of resources, tutorials and videos now available to goaltenders and coaches, unique netminders of Hasek’s ilk are increasingly rare; but Stewart insists it’s important for young netminders to remember why they took up the position in the first place.
“You have to enjoy it, you have to love it.”
“I honestly do and that’s probably the most important thing – you have to love what you’re doing; because if you don’t you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
As statements of intent go, retaining Stewart’s services is a significant one for the Blaze – and while the affable netminder can now enjoy a well earned break at home, Coventry can set about building on this seasons success safe in the knowledge their MVP is on board for two more years.