Stewart: “Every game is a playoff game.” 

Brian Stewart is what some might call a veteran goalie in the Elite League. If you look through the lists of import goalies who come and play here, most only last a year and some, not even that. Following some of the interviews with the Elite League goalies this season, I can definitely see why that is the case.

The grueling schedule and almost constant playtime for starting goalies can take its toll mentally and physically on even the strongest willed player, but for all the faults – that some like to pick at in desperate times, the wrought-iron Canadian has done his absolute best for this team. He is coming up for his third season finish in the UK for the Coventry Blaze and is still considered by most, to be one of the best in the Elite League.

In the course of collecting my Behind The Mask series one goalie went so far as to say that Stewart was the kind of goalie who could win games for his team. Huge praise from one of his own and I think that speaks volumes.

With the Coventry Blaze he’s seen two playoff runs, one of which included a huge win against the Sheffield Steelers in 2015 and a near miss out to the Nottingham Panthers in the finals of 2016, having upset league winners Sheffield in the first round.

I got the chance to sit down with Brian Stewart recently after a gruelling 90 minute practise at the Skydome Arena. We talked about the impending playoffs, previous runs in the Elite League and also his memories from playing in North America and his childhood and adult memories of watching the LA Kings.

What was his best playoff memory from his three years with the Coventry Blaze? “Well obviously winning those playoffs.” He said without hesitation. That was his first season in Coventry and I can see how that might be hard to top.

“Two years ago we finished sixth in the league. We were out of a playoff spot in November and we finished the year strong and from January onwards we carried that into the playoffs.

No sixth place team had ever done that and we came eighth last year and we were close then too. No eighth seed team had beat a one seed til last year either, it felt pretty great. Even though we didn’t win overall.”

How does he find the playoff format here in the U.K.? Especially as he now has three years of experience to look back at and learn from. “The playoffs here are so short and anything can happen. Same as last year, we were an eighth place team and we upset Sheffield. It’s only two games and then we made the playoff finals and we almost won it. The score was 2-0 to Nottingham.

How does he find the length of the playoffs here? “It’s really short so it’s not like the sort of playoff you’re going to get back home, they are long and gruelling and it’s not about finished first in the league, it’s mainly about getting home ice advantage. It’s just totally different here, you guys do it more like soccer.”

Mentioning soccer Stewart talks about the crowds and how they differ between playoff and non-playoff and the differences between UK crowds and those on the continent. He again uses the comparison to soccer crowds.

“It’s different.” He says, talking about the crowds. “You kind of get a bigger crowd at playoff games but for the most part it’s the same really. Here though, they’re more like they are in North America, in Europe it’s all about the flares and it’s more like soccer. It’s more like America here because they do the chants and stuff.”

Does it affect him though? The volume and size of a crowd? “Not really, I sort of tune it out as much as I can really. So it doesn’t affect me. I do a lot of mental preparation before games and I like to stay loose and I do have a routine. I’m a little bit superstitious. I don’t really like to talk about it but I have little things I like to do.”

Are you the kind of guy who’s game can be thrown off if your routine isn’t just right? “Not really, I do my own thing and just worry about me and hope I can give us the best chance to go out there and win every night. The rest will fall into place.”

When I asked if his preparation for a game will be different depending on the teams potential opponent he simply shook his head. “Nope, it’ll be the same regardless.” It’s all to do with routine and getting in the right mental headspace to go out there and give their all on the ice each and every night.

What are your earliest playoff memories? Whether that be playing or watching? I asked. Goalies, in terms of play are known for having to have short memories during games but Stewart spoke animatedly about his experiences in junior league hockey.

“Really, we never got very long playoff runs, we always got to the second round or out in the first round. I’ve never had a long playoff run. My farthest was when I was with Almara in the East Coast Hockey League, we won our conference but then got knocked out by a really good Florida team in the second round but they ended up winning it all.”

I suggest perhaps it’s better for your own confidence to be knocked out by the eventual winners than by those who go and get knocked out in the following round.

“Maybe a bit of peace of mind, but that’s all really. I mean I don’t know, I’ve never been a part of an extremely long playoff run but it’s probably the best part of playing hockey.”

He then suddenly remembers another playoff memory, probably not the happiest but one that clearly sticks in his mind. “When I played in Germany we lost out in the semi-finals. Game seven, in overtime. Not just one period of overtime. Double overtime. That wasn’t so great.”

Every young hockey player has their idols, for the young Brian Stewart it was Wayne Gretzky and he would enjoy spending time watching the Los Angeles Kings with his father.

“I think I liked the LA Kings, I was a Wayne Gretzky fan when I was younger. My dad would take me to watch the Kings when I was younger, I remember I got tickets for Christmas. I liked the Oilers before the Kings, but I liked the Kings for Gretzky.”

How about as an adult? Did he watch much NHL? I asked if he had any memories from that.

“Seven years ago I was there for game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, Boston against Vancouver. Boston lifted the cup in Vancouver, that was pretty cool. I don’t get to do stuff like that, that often so that was pretty good.”

Our thoughts turn to the offseason, something many fans dread as it means a long period of time without hockey. Did Stewart have any plans?

“I have no idea but I’m going back home in early May and moving into my new place and then just go with the flow and see what happens really.”

Just a nice relaxed summer then? After the long and gruelling season that comes with being an Elite League starting netminder, I don’t blame him for a second.

So I asked the question that most Blaze fans want asking, would he be returning to the boys in blue in the autumn. As I have noticed often he keeps his cards close to his chest. “I have absolutely no clue about that yet. I just don’t know.”

~*~

This article was originally written with the purpose of going into the Playoff edition of OnFire, however it never went to print so I have posted it here. I hope you have enjoyed it. We at Chasing the Puck with Brian Stewart all the best for the future, whatever that may be. 

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