Chris Stewart is 32 years old and worked his butt off to return to the NHL after a yearlong hiatus in which he played 23 games for the EIHL’s Nottingham Panthers.
He does not take wearing an NHL jersey for granted.
“It’s the National Hockey League, it’s a blessing to be here, it’s a privilege to be here,” Stewart said last week. “That year away definitely changed my perspective on life.”
In his 11th NHL season, he often finds himself in the shadows, when few are watching. During those unglamorous moments, Stewart has grown close to a 21-year-old who was picked second overall in the 2017 draft by the Flyers.
While a fierce competitor like Stewart would love to be playing, the byproduct of not suiting up every game is his support for Nolan Patrick through trying times. Patrick has battled a daily fight with a migraine disorder. As Stewart stays ready and vies for a spot in the Flyers’ lineup, Patrick joins him in pursuit of playing again.
Patrick has yet to play in 2019-20. He was diagnosed with the migraine disorder in September and last week called the recovery process “sh---y” and “pretty wavy.”
Stewart has played in nine of the Flyers’ first 30 games, serving mostly as a healthy scratch. Instead of wearing a scowl across his face, he is persistently positive — especially for Patrick.
“I’m not in the lineup right now and he’s hurt, so it’s oddly that we’re spending a lot of time together — working out together, skating together every morning,” Stewart said. “For me personally, I’m just trying to be positive for him. Toughest job in the league is being hurt and not playing. You get caught up trying to look at the big picture every night as opposed to just looking at the small picture — what do I’ve got to do today, what do I’ve got to do next. Then that building up over time, hopefully you start feeling better.”
Recently, Patrick has been skating more, getting in work with the Flyers’ healthy scratches, skills coach Angelo Ricci and the assistants.
I’m just trying to be a positive reinforcement in his life. You can tell, he wears a lot on his shoulders and he wants to play. He has his good days and his bad. Our worst day is someone’s best day. You look at the bigger aspects of life, it’s not that big of a deal. He’s coming along nicely. I noticed since he’s been back, he’s upbeat, his energy, you can see his glow starting to come back in his face, so it’s good.
When Stewart was scoring a career-high 64 points with the Avalanche in 2009-10, Patrick was only 11 years old.
The 2006 first-round pick of Colorado has played 661 games and scored 322 points (160 goals, 162 assists) between seven NHL teams.
Patrick is grateful to have a guy like that in his corner.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him,” Patrick said last week. “He’s helped me stay positive, he always brings a good energy, so it’s nice to have him around.
“He’s helped me a lot through it. I can’t really thank my teammates enough.”
Stewart didn’t grind his way back to the NHL to be complacent with watching. He’s hungry to have an impact in games. However, he understands the concept of team.
It’s bigger than him.
“We’re all playing for the same goal, everybody wants to play,” Stewart said. “If you’re not playing, there’s part of a leadership role, accountability and things that you’ve got to buy into and take pride into. I’d give anything to be playing out there with my teammates but if I can’t, I’m going to do what I can to bring the energy in the room and be that guy for the boys.
“Internal competition is only healthy for the team. Everybody is good enough but you can only dress 12 guys. Whoever is in that night is going to give a hell of an effort and if you’re not, cheer them on.”
That mindset is part of why the Flyers were intrigued by the veteran winger this offseason, bringing Stewart into camp on a pro tryout and signing him Oct. 15.
“Stewie has been around the NHL a long time, he knows what it takes to play and stay at this level,” Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said last week. “His reputation, and rightfully so, is a great team guy. … I’m happy that Nolan feels the same way. Stewie is a good influence in a dressing room.”
And a great influence for Patrick.
We talk all the time, when we’re on the road, we keep in contact, like to check in on him every couple days about the stuff that he’s going through.
Let him know that I’m here, just be a shoulder to lean on, to talk to, an open door and that’s how we’ve been.
Alongside Stewart, Kevin Hayes was also one of the fresh faces in the Flyers’ locker room entering the 2019-20 season.
After signing a seven-year, $50 million contract in June, Hayes has settled in with his new team and surroundings, also becoming one of the Flyers’ alternate captains.
He has built a bond with Patrick away from the ice as the two live together.
“He’s a great kid, a young guy,” Hayes said last week. “I bought a place here that’s pretty big to live by myself and invited him in. He’s been great. He’s a professional, he handles himself the right way. He’s been traveling a lot with seeing some doctors and stuff, but we pretty much see each other every day.
“We’re pretty tight. It’s not easy being a new guy here on the team and living with him makes it a lot easier. I feel super comfortable now with where I’m at, but earlier in the season, it was a little different. We spend a lot of time together, he’s a great kid. We’ve had different type of upbringings but we’ve definitely become pretty close this year.”
Patrick played 73 games his rookie year and 72 last season. He expects to play in 2019-20 but there’s no set date for his return as this type of recovery process can be difficult to predict, specifically timeframe-wise.
While Patrick and the Flyers attempt to find what works for the third-year center, Hayes sees the process in which his teammate goes through on a day-to-day basis.
I’ve been lucky enough to kind of not have a serious injury in this league and I hope I don’t ever have to go through something like that. I’m sure it’s never fun to be away from the guys. The best part about playing on a sports team is going to battle with your teammates — that’s how you build friendships around here.
I’m sure he’s doing everything in his power to get back. I mean, I’m witnessing it firsthand. I think the biggest thing for him is getting correct with his head and then going from there.
Just like Stewart, Hayes wants to be there for Patrick — on and off the ice.
“We’ve all had to deal with stuff in our lives before,” Hayes said. “You can tell when someone is up or down. He handles it on his own way. I’m a pretty outgoing person, I can kind of figure out when he wants to talk and when he wants to just go hang out and chill in his room. I don’t really push anything too much on him, he’s a great kid and it’s been a blast living with him.”
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