As just a kid, Chris Stewart felt he was different playing the game of hockey. He played the game like everyone else and was pretty good at it, too. But he still felt different.
He couldn't help but feel different.
"You notice it right away," Stewart said. "You come to the rink, you walk in with your dad, my dad's Black and there's not another Black kid on the team. Right away, you kind of knew."
Stewart, a former Flyer and now a player development coach in the organization, once struggled with being Black while pursuing his dreams of professional hockey. Even as an NHL prospect and one of the star players on the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs, Stewart at times fought being himself.
"I remember my days in junior, whenever I was in Kingston and we'd go back to Toronto and play, my family would come," Stewart said in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia's Taryn Hatcher on the Flyers Talk podcast. "My dad's Jamaican and he'd always bring me some homemade food and things like that. It was curry goat and oxtail and things that there's not a chance a guy on my team would eat, so I'd always be kind of embarrassed or didn't want to eat that food on the bus or wondered if it smelled. That side of my culture that I was kind of afraid to show, but those are things that you've got to embrace.
"It sounds easier than done, but I think embracing your culture and being proud of where you came from, those are two things that I think could be a plus to a dressing room."
Stewart shares these stories, memories that are powerful and painful, because he wants to continue to inspire Black kids to play hockey. He doesn't want anyone to face the racism he endured as he overcame what could have been dream-shattering acts of cruelty to play the sport that "saved" his life.
Stewart, now 33 years old, had a difficult upbringing in Toronto. He and his older brother Anthony Stewart, 36, broke down barriers together, both becoming first-round NHL draft picks as Kingston products. Stewart looked up to his older brother. The experiences as rare hockey players of color molded their lives.
The younger Stewart remembers growing up and having racial slurs shouted at him from the stands. He also vividly remembers walking to the arena with his dad to watch one of his older brother's first OHL games.
"A car drives by and starts screaming the N-word out the window and things like that," Stewart said. "I was probably 14 at the time."
Stewart is no longer bashful about his background. Along with Wayne Simmonds and other Black pro players, Stewart helped create the Hockey Diversity Alliance last summer. Stewart loves the game of hockey and the opportunities it has provided him. He has cherished building bonds with players from all parts of the world and respecting their creeds of life.
"I think that's the beautiful part of the game is you're bringing all these people from these different cultures and these different religions, and bring them under one roof and have them all pushing for the same goal, which is beautiful," Stewart said. "Not only hockey, in sports, that's the international currency, that's the one thing that everybody understands and it brings everybody together."
In celebration of Black History Month, Stewart and his family will celebrate their roots. Stewart will continue to inspire others and never forget the challenges. His passion for hockey was fueled by his father Norman Stewart, who took to the sport and the Montreal Canadiens despite challenges.
Stewart is grateful his father pushed forward.
"My dad migrated from Jamaica in the early 1970s," Stewart said. "He was a cricket player, so when he came over, he didn't really understand the game. If you go to that course in the 70s, from '71 to '78, I think they won six Stanley Cups in eight years. So right away he was hooked on the game, he really had a strong, strong passion for the game. Growing up as a Black man in the 70s in Quebec as a Jamaican, the culture definitely didn't take to him right away, he wasn't really accepted, but that didn't turn him away from chasing his dreams.
"To show you how much he really embraced the Canadiens' culture, my brother's first game in Montreal, we all go there and my dad has a Florida Panthers jersey on and overtop, he had his Canadiens jacket overtop of that. Even though his son was playing for the Panthers, he wasn't going to let his Canadiens slide. He was still going to represent his Canadiens no matter what."
You can listen to Hatcher's full interview with Stewart on the Flyers Talk podcast right here or on the platforms below.
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