Spruce Kings add European touch
Mack Stewart speaks English with a Canadian accent and you wouldn’t suspect he’s spent most of his life in Europe but his passport tells a different story.
Born of Canadian parents in Villach, Austria, 17 years and nine months ago, Stewart moved to Canada last year to play in Alberta Midget Hockey League for the Calgary Royals and that’s where he was when he landed on the Prince George Spruce Kings’ recruitment radar.
The six-foot-one, 168-pound centre hopes to make a career out of hockey, following the path set by his father Michael, a Calgary-born-and-raised defenceman picked 13th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL draft. When Mack went looking for a junior hockey home the Spruce Kings just happened to have a spot available to play for them in the B.C. Hockey League.
“This is the place for development, we have a great coaching staff and this team’s had tons of success in the past and we’re hoping to continue it,” said Mack Stewart, who carries a reputation as a skilled forward with above-average skater skills and a strong work ethic who takes pride in his defensive play.
“I like to feed the puck and make plays and I’m strong in the corners,” he said.
Hockey came naturally to the younger Stewart, who starting playing hockey when he was three and grew up around the rink surrounded by professional hockey players. He spent the first 10 years of his life living in Villach, a city of about 60,000 located about a two-hour drive south of Salzburg, where his dad played.
“We traveled a bunch around southern Austria (playing minor hockey) and it was awesome,” he said. “The ice was bigger, more skill development. We moved to Northern Germany (Bremerhaven) for three years and that was alright but the hockey wasn’t very good and I played with a couple older age groups.”
Mack played one season in Salzburg (2016-17) and left to attend the Red Bull Hockey Academy in the Czech Republic to play the following season for the under-18 team.
“We traveled all the way to Finland, Sweden, went to Minnesota, so that was great experience,” he said.
After 13 years playing on ice surfaces that are 15 feet wider than most North American rinks, that’s required a major adjustment for Stewart.
“The speed took me time to get used to but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it,” he said. “There’s more physicality here, more dump-and-chase. For my team, Red Bull, we weren’t allowed to dump the puck. We were a skilled team and hated it. Here it’s a totally different game.”
In Calgary, he put up 13 goals and 31 points in 31 games with the Royals last season and helped his midget team go 13 games deep into the playoffs, contributing four goals and an assist.
Michael Stewart had just finished his first season in the NCAA at Michigan State when the Rangers drafted him. Now his son is with the Spruce Kings trying to to earn his own U.S. college hockey scholarship.
“He was a defenceman, a tough guy,” said Mack. “He thinks it’s great that I’m here, I’ve been talking to him every day and he’s liking it, we’re obviously getting good development, we’re on the ice a ton.”
Michael Stewart, now 47, never played in the NHL but his pro career spanned 18 seasons in the AHL, IHL, Canadian national team, Austria and Germany from 19892000. He got into coaching the year he retired and served two seasons in Austrian pro league with Villacher SV before he went back to Germany to coach the Fischtown Pinguins. He moved up to the German Elite League in 2015 and spent seven seasons as head coach and general manager of the Augberger Panther and is now head coach of the Elite League’s Kolner Haie.
The Spruce Kings are defending BCHL champions and Stewart will see the fruits of their labour when the team raises its Fred Page Cup and Doyle Cup banners to the rafters at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena next Friday at their season-opener against the Surrey Eagles.
“I’m looking forward to playing top-level hockey with top-level players, our group’s looking great and it’s going to be a fun year playing with these guys,” he said.
The Kings wrap up their brief preseason tonight in Merritt, a rematch of Tuesday night, where the Kings beat the Centennials 5-3 at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.