Dean Stewart’s hockey career is one many kids dream of; play for your local junior team, win a national championship, represent your country on the international stage and get drafted into the NHL.
It’s been quite a career so far for the 22-year-old defenceman from Portage la Prairie. Stewart played 33 games for the Terriers in the magical 2014-15 season that ended in a RBC Cup championship on home ice. He was then one of five players that returned for the 2015-16 season. A leader from the blue line, Stewart helped Portage win another league championship. He also played on Team Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge with teammate Brett Orr and won the gold medal. The icing on the cake at the end of the season was the fact he was selected 188th overall in the NHL entry draft by the Arizona Coyotes.
Stewart then made the leap to the NCAA Div I, with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Over the last four seasons he registered 45 points in 130 games. In his final year he was named the captain. “I knew halfway through my 3rd year that I’d be able to play in the AHL when I left school,” says Stewart. “I came back for my senior year and then before the first weekend of the playoffs everything shutdown.”
Drafted by Arizona, Stewart never signed a contract with them. On Aug 15th he became a free agent looking for a team. There were a few AHL clubs that were interested but COVID put a lot of things on pause. The Portage product signed a contract with the Witchita Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League, which is the farm team of the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL, and Edmonton Oilers of the NHL.
“I decided to start in the ECHL to get started [in North America] instead of playing in Europe.”
Since the COVID shutdown, Stewart has been busy training for his pro hockey debut. He says he feels prepared. “I had such an amazing time at school. I got to play under some incredible coaches and great teammates who have become some of my best friends. After 4 years I don’t think I could be more ready to make the step into pro hockey.”
The Witchita Thunder team has been ravaged by COVID-19 and had to postpone four of their games. Stewart finally made his pro hockey debut on Sunday (Jan. 24) against the Indy Fuel. With still a large portion of their roster affected by COVID, the Thunder played the game with only 14 skaters. Stewart logged between 25-30 minutes on the blueline and helped Witchita pick up a 2-1 victory over the top team in the league.
Stewart hopes to play well over the next few games but focuses on the future. “It looks like most of the AHL will play this year so the plan is head to Bakersfield (AHL) for their camp when it opens.”