ICERAYS ALUMNI REPORT – HAYDEN STEWART

FORMER NETMINDER STEWART STEPS INTO STORIED CORNELL PROGRAM
 

BY: COLLIN SCHUCK

Every August, hundreds of thousands of young adults are asked to pack their belongings and trudge to another city—many of these students move for the first time—whether it is at home or abroad. New faces, new places, new life. The task isn’t easy for any newly enrolled college student.

For those coming from the junior hockey ranks, the move isn’t the daunting part: it’s the new educational responsibilities that take its toll.

“In juniors, you play hockey, do some community service, and that’s it,” said Hayden Stewart, a freshman College of Arts and Sciences student and goaltender at Cornell University. “But in college, you have the school work part of it. So figuring out how to balance that is something that I’ve really had to refine.”

Stewart, 20, is one of 3,261 freshmen students to attend Cornell University this fall in Ithaca, N.Y., with merely seven gaining spots on the NCAA Division I roster. They join 20 returning players to make up the 2014-15 roster, and only one of these players has prior experience with Stewart: forward Dwyer Tschantz from the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League.

Despite the overwhelming statistics, the gelling process with his new squad mates has been “awesome.”

“The guys have done such a good job of welcoming the other freshmen and I onto the team. We have a close knit team, and that’s so fun to have and so fun to be here at the beginning of the season.”

His new ice home, Lynah Rink, is one of the most iconic rinks amongst college hockey fans, entering its 57th season of service to the Big Red that holds a packed barn of 4,267 patrons. The low roof and compact confines allow for a boisterous resonation, while the wooden rafters and supports reveal a constant reminder of the longevity of the program.

“I really can’t describe it. I couldn’t get any words out. It was unbelievable. I had never seen a game at Lynah before I came here and we started playing games. Seeing that spirit we have from the Lynah faithful, the student section, and all of our fans was awesome. It’s just so fun to go out and play in front of that group.”

“We have all kinds of our history put up around the rink, from pictures of guys in the NHL to banners of past championships. Honestly, you can’t go anywhere in the rink without thinking of the history there.”

The men’s hockey team is entering its 105th season under the University, fielding its first team in 1900-01 at Beebe Lake. In that span: two National Championships and 12 East Coast Athletic Conference titles; nine First Team All-American goaltenders and 19 All-American skaters; six of the 27 former players currently play for National Hockey League clubs, including Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens, Buffalo Sabres forward Matt Moulson, and Ottawa Senators forward Colin Greening.

And hanging from the darkened rafters are two banners that commemorate two members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Ken Dryden, goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens for eight seasons, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983. He won six Stanley Cups, five Vezina Trophies (best goaltender), and was the recipient of the 1971 Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) and the 1972 Calder Memorial Trophy (NHL Rookie of the Year). He was a three-time All-American at Cornell, helping the team to their first National Championship in 1967 and owns the best record of any Cornell netminder at 76-4-1.

Joe Nieuwendyk, forward for five different teams including the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. Nieuwendyk owns 1,126 career points in his 1,257 NHL games, winning a Stanley Cup with three different teams, earning gold for Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, the 1988 Calder Memorial Trophy, and the 1999 Conn Smythe Trophy.

While Stewart doesn’t feel the pressure of the program, the team reveals strong pride for the red and white sweater they represent.

“Every time we step out onto the ice, it’s always something we’re trying to preserve and add to that great hockey culture.”

Stewart hails from the third largest city in Illinois: Rockford, home of the American Hockey League affiliated Rockford IceHogs. It’s a state with a strong professional hockey culture derived from the Chicago Blackhawks and their lasting impact, yet no collegiate athletic program owns a NCAA Division I hockey program.

Enter Chris Dilks, writer for SB Nation’s College Hockey blog, who published a piece on SBNation.com that featured Stewart as one of three Illinois goaltenders to be selected in his state fantasy draft of current college hockey players. Like many young players, the media attention doesn’t deter the young netminder.

“It’s definitely an honor, and I’m grateful to be put on that list, but I just try not to think about things like that.”

The Big Red have stumbled out of the gates this season, owning a 1-4-1 record which stands as the worst start to a season through their first six games since 1959-60, when the Big Red went 1-5-0 to kick off their 2-19-0 reason under Paul Patten. Stewart has appeared in two of those games, tallying a 0-1-0 record with two goals allowed and a .923 save percentage. With every jump in competition, there is an adjustment period, and going from the USHL to NCAA Division I is no different. The schedule is cut in half from the junior season, and that’s been the hardest adjustment for the young goaltender.

“Every single game is so important. You can’t afford to take a night off in college, though you couldn’t take a night off in juniors either. It’s definitely more magnified, and every game has high stakes, especially in our conference.”

Though he hasn’t played with the Corpus Christi IceRays since coming down from the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks early in the 2012-13 season, those that watch the Big Red at home and on the road will notice the familiar designs of his helmet are the same that adorned his mask while playing with the IceRays: a white base with the IceRays logo airbrushed onto the forehead with a small “15” placed to the lower right side, a skeleton saxophonist wearing a brown trench coat and hat playing on the left side in front of the red rays resembling a sunset, and the same number on the mask’s chin that he wore in the Coastal Bend that also appears in red on the back of his current sweater: 31.

It’s a constant reminder to the memories he shared and the personal development gained during his first full junior season en route to the franchise’s only playoff appearance as a junior team.

“There were so many lessons that I needed to learn. Coach [Justin Quenneville], Coach [Jeff] Worlton, [General Manager] Pat Dunn, and everybody there just helped me so much with learning lessons toward maturity, how to play at that level, and what it takes to be successful. They always supported me and encouraged me, and obviously we had ups and downs like every team, but there was always constant learning and constant support.”

The first snowfall has already commenced in New York’s Southern Tier, as if to foreshadow the clean slate and a new chapter in Hayden Stewart’s amateur career and professional development. The harsh cold will creep into the confines of Lynah Rink, providing no safe haven from winter’s breath outside of his own dorm room. The environment is foreign as are the people, but the new design of a similar white and red sweater will bring warmth and comfort in yet another transition for this young goaltender entering the graces of the Cornell University men’s ice hockey program.

“I’m honored and so grateful to be here as I think all of us are. To be playing for a program with such tradition, such history. Being able to put on the Cornell sweater is something by itself.”
 


Photo credit: Ned Dykes / Cornell Athletic Communications


Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He may be contacted at cschuck@goicerays.com or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.