As if the draft isn’t a stressful enough time for any young athlete, imagine throwing your high school graduation and senior prom on top of it … all in the same day. Omaha defenseman Dean Stewart experienced that scenario firsthand in June of 2016.
“That was probably the best day of my life,” Stewart said. “I had interviewed with the Coyotes a couple times and some other teams leading up to it, so I knew it was a possibility, but I decided not to go to the draft. I got drafted in the morning, so I was pretty busy talking to people from Phoenix and friends and family, but that was a really good day. My graduation ceremony was actually that same day in the afternoon, and then prom in the evening. Super hectic, but such a fun day for me.”
Selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the seventh round of the 2016 NHL entry draft, just a few short months later the Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, native would make his way south to Omaha to embark on the next stage of his hockey journey – college hockey.
Now, with another graduation looming for the senior later this spring, it’s an opportunity to look back and reflect on his time in Omaha. It’s four years he’ll never forget, but more importantly, it’s four years that changed him as a person.
“It’s crazy to think back, but there are so many ways I think I’ve changed as a person since I got here,” said Stewart. “Coming in as an 18-year-old kid, I was so immature and really didn’t know what I was doing with my life. After playing with so many of these guys plus having our coaches we have here, I’ve learned so much. I look back on my freshman year and just shake my head – I’m a completely new person now.”
Growing up and playing junior hockey like most other young players in Canada, Stewart was in a fortunate situation in that he got to stay at home to play, which most kids don’t get the chance to do. At the same time, it only made the adjustment to college that much tougher as it was his first time living away from home.
“Playing juniors in Portage, I stayed at home as a 16 and 17-year-old kid, so this was the first time I was really on my own,” Stewart said. “When I came here I had to learn how to cook for myself and do my own laundry, all while trying to manage my time with hockey and school, so it was definitely an adjustment for me. My roommates were really helpful though, since they had all lived in other places before, and that made it a little bit easier for me. It was definitely a challenge at first.”
Watch a practice or ask around the Omaha room on any given day now and that immaturity may come as a surprise, as Stewart is one of the hardest working members of the roster. Now in his fourth season behind the Omaha bench, Maverick head coach Mike Gabinet has gotten to see Stewart grow from the start, and it’s been a fun process, he said.
“I got to be his D coach as a freshman, but just to see him evolve has been tremendous,” said Gabinet. “Not only on the ice, but off the ice has been really special. He’s still a young guy being a 21-year-old senior, but the small things like learning how to eat right, train and take care of his body off the ice have had a big impact.”
Flashback to the fall of 2016, the young defenseman stood at just 170 pounds. February of 2020, and he’s grown physically (6 feet, 2 inches tall and 200 pounds), but the biggest strides have come off the ice. Stewart said none of that would’ve been possible without this coaching staff.
“I think we have one of the best coaching staffs in college hockey, and without them, I don’t know where I’d be,” Stewart said. “When you have guys like we have in the room who are always pushing guys to be better, it’s pretty easy to improve as a player. We always talk as a senior class about how much we’ve changed as people and players, and it’s just crazy to look back now.”
The self-described two-way defenseman, Stewart, along with several others on this roster, was actually recruited by Dean Blais and the previous coaching staff. After talking with good friend and now former Maverick Joel Messner, Stewart and his father decided to make the trip to Omaha to see what the program was all about.
Shortly after that visit around Christmas of 2015, the then 17-year-old had his mind made up that he would be a Maverick. Although the faces behind the Omaha bench have changed since that initial recruitment process, it’s all worked out for the best, he said.
“Blaiser was one of the main reasons I came to Omaha, and I really liked the way he had that old school approach to things,” said Stewart. “Not much beating around the bush with him – he was pretty direct – and you knew what he expected of you, and that’s the way it should be. Speaking for the senior class as a whole, I think one of the main reasons everybody committed here was for Coach Blais.
“At the same time, I don’t think we could’ve gotten luckier in getting Gabs as an assistant that first year and having him take over year two,” said Stewart. “I have no doubt that if he wants to coach in the NHL someday he’ll be able to, and he’s just one of the smartest hockey minds I’ve ever met. I think he’s a big part of the reason myself and the rest of the seniors have grown and matured so much while we’ve been here, and that’s just a testament to the culture he’s created. I owe a lot to both of them.”
As much as Gabinet and his coaches have influenced Stewart, another big factor over the last three seasons has been the leadership by his past teammates, he said. Early in the fall of 2019 came a moment he still takes a lot of pride in, and a chance to lead a young group of his own … Captain Dean Stewart.
“Tough to describe it,” said Stewart. “I just think for me there are so many ways to be a good captain and lead a team, and I’ve been super fortunate to learn from some of the guys the last few years. Justin Parizek, Joel Messner, Mason Morelli, plus all of the assistant captains we’ve had here – they’ve all had a big impact on me, and I try to take a couple qualities from each of those guys and use it for this group, because they were so helpful for me as a young player.
“It’s just super humbling for me that these guys wanted me as the captain. I actually haven’t worn a letter since bantams, so the most important thing for me was to not to change too much. I think if you asked the group, most of the guys would say I’m more of a guy who tries to lead by example and shows up to work hard everyday, which I think is important, but also, we’ve got guys in the room who are really vocal, so I want their voices to be heard as well. I just want to do whatever is best for the team.”
At the same time, getting the C stitched on his chest hasn’t been an overnight process, and it’s his work ethic and leadership qualities that haven’t gone unnoticed. It’s part of the reason he was selected by his teammates and coaches at the start of this season.
“I think he’s one of our hardest workers, and it’s special how he prepares everyday,” said Gabinet. “What he does on the ice and in the weight room–it’s no surprise he’s a captain. He’s ultra competitive and really sets the bar for how we need to compete here in this program.”
Senior forward Zach Jordan, who roomed with Stewart during their freshman year along with Ryan Jones and Tristan Keck, said he’s gotten a chance to see Stewart grow from those first few days on campus. He’s also not surprised to see his friend now leading the team.
“He’s just a class guy,” Jordan said. “I’ve been with him here all four years, and we’ve seen each other mature and come a long way, both on and off the ice. The three of us [Stewart, Jordan and Jones] were once the young guys together, and now we’re leading the team together, so it’s really cool to see. He’s a guy that would take a bullet for me, and I would rely on him for anything.”
On the ice, one of the people who knows him best would be Nate Knoepke, his defensive partner dating back to the early parts of last season. He considers himself lucky to play alongside “Stew,” he said.
“I think he makes my job a lot easier,” said Knoepke. “Even if you don’t talk to him out there, you know he’s going to make the right play, but he’s a crazy competitor and you can always count on him.”
After getting a chance to learn from the fellow blueliner the past nearly two seasons, Knoepke also said it’s no surprise Stewart is the captain of the group. He’s only helped him grow.
“I was a sophomore last year, but I only played in two games my freshman year [at Minnesota], so I was still young out there and learning. Just watching Stew in practice and in games helped that a lot though, and he’s taught me so much. The way he prepares, it’s incredible. Yeah he likes to have fun with all of the guys, but when it comes to gametime he’s super locked in.”
As someone who values character and leadership like no other, it’s Stewart’s actions and his “lead by example” mentality that stand out most to Gabinet, he said. It’s a big part of the reason Stewart wears the letter on his jersey this season.
“I think the most important thing about any good leader is what they demonstrate,” said Gabinet. “Everyone wants to be a good leader, a good coach, a good dad – everybody wants to do everything well, but what matters is what are you actually doing. You’re judged on your actions, not your intentions, so for me when you look at the leadership group you want people that lead by example and demonstrate the core values of the program. Dean Stewart does that.”
However, as much as Stewart may embrace that leadership mentality when the time comes, it’s not always a completely serious, zoned in mentality. As much as he may not want to admit it some of the time, there’s a much lighter side to the captain.
It’s part of the reason he’s such a well-liked teammate.
“He’s just smiley,” said Knoepke. “He’s always smiling, both in a good and a bad way. Whether he’s either trying to get under someone’s skin, or he’s just having a good time, he’s always having fun out there. He’s got one of the most mischievous smiles out there.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty mischievous,” Zach Jordan said with a laugh. “He’s pretty good at getting under people’s skin and he’s done it to me a couple times, so I definitely know he can do it. In all seriousness though, as much fun as he likes to have, he’s pretty serious and once it’s go time, he’s pretty dialed in. That’s a big part of why he’s such a good captain.”
From team bowling to watching football together on Sundays throughout the fall, the chemistry of the group has made a big difference for a group which includes 11 freshmen. Knoepke said a big part of that starts with Stewart and the leaders of the team.
“He’s really fun to be around,” said Knoepke. “He’s always joking around with everyone and you wouldn’t know he’s a senior or the captain. We’re all super tight at the rink, but away from the rink we all want to hang out together, and that all starts with our leadership group.”
The “captain” now in front of his name, it’s another sign of the growth along the way for Dean Stewart. From the “immature freshman” still trying to find his way through life away from home, to becoming the leader and the voice of a locker room, his decision to come to Omaha has impacted him more than he ever imagined.
After a string of 80 consecutive games played from Jan. 6, 2018 to Feb. 7, 2020, number 18 has gotten used to the confines of Baxter Arena. However, away from the rink, Omaha has become home. If you asked him in the fall of 2016 you may have gotten a different answer, but when graduation rolls around this upcoming May, it’s safe to say it won’t be goodbye for good.
“It’s funny–if you ask some of the guys in the locker room, I don’t think anybody talks about their hometown as much as me because I love Portage La Prairie so much,” Stewart said. “I just remember freshman year when I came down in the summer I was a little nervous, but more than anything, I just didn’t want to leave home.
“When I came to Omaha that year I was thinking, ‘oh I’ll play three, maybe four years in Omaha, then I’ll move on and won’t have any ties to the community.’ After being here for four years now, I’ll never stop coming back and Omaha is always going to have a special place in my heart.”
Stewart has come a long way from the 9-year-old goalie trying to do his best Martin Brodeur impressions on an outdoor rink in Portage La Prairie, but he doesn’t take a single moment along the way for granted, he said. When Dean Stewart stands on the blue line during the starting lineups these final two home series, it may not set in quite yet, but it’ll be a chance to look around and realize how far he’s come.
“I just remember looking up to the Portage Terriers – those guys were just my absolute idols. I remember when I made the Terriers at 16, that was a dream come true to me, and that was my main goal for life up to that point–I thought that was going to be the end.
“If you would’ve told me two years later I was going to come here, and a few years after that I’d be a captain, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I’m so happy I made the decision to come to Omaha. It’s crazy to think how fast everything has happened, but I’m just grateful for everything here. I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d rather be.”