Ask any hockey player when they had the first notion to get in the game, and the memories will flow. For Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Stuart, the cold Minnesota winter and two older brothers helped mold the 6’1″ defenseman into the on-ice force he is today.
“I got into hockey, probably because my two older brothers both played. My dad didn’t play growing up because they didn’t have it where he was from,” said Stuart. “But his job brought him to Minnesota, so naturally my brothers got into it and I followed suit. My dad fell in love with it once we all started playing. We built a rink in the backyard you know how it goes – typical for Minnesota and that’s where I learned how to skate.”
One of four children, it wasn’t a game for just the boys in the Stuart household, it was loved by everyone.
“My sister got into figure skating first and eventually wanted to play hockey instead. She got into it at a young age and ended up playing four years at Boston College and really enjoyed that.”
Of course, it isn’t solely ones family that gets them into the game, but the NHL superstars that they grow to love in their youth. Like many of his on ice peers, Stuart closely followed the career of a hockey great.
“I would have picked Chris Chelios, he was kind of a favorite of mine growing up. He was a defensemen, fun to watch, played hard and he was a US born guy which was cool. I just remember watching him play as I was growing up and when I turned pro he was still playing, he was always a guy I looked up to.”
The offensive thrill often brings many kids to the ice and the thought of defending the blueline is sometimes overlooked. Playing defensemen was always at the forefront of Stuart’s game.
“I don’t remember the moment that I made the switch, I think I always played defense growing up. I honestly can’t remember if I was a forward and then I switched over to D, I just remember being a defenseman and loving it.”
Once you fall in love with the game, there is no turning back. The key to success is the support system that remains in place during rink life and your time off the ice. For many players, the dedication that their parents show never goes overlooked. The sentiment rings true for Stuart as well.
“Definitely my parents, they were very big, they always inspired me to work hard. Best thing was they never put a lot of pressure on me to play, so it was always something fun to do. It never felt like a job growing up, it was just fun.”
With the sport reaching new levels of success at even younger ages nowadays, the concept of fun occasionally gets lost in the mix. Living the game is important, but living life outside of it reaps equal benefits.
“The best advice I was given, was pretty simple. Work as hard as you can, have fun doing it but don’t forget about the other things, school and enjoying other sports,” said Stuart. “For me growing up, it was other sports to. I took a break away from hockey which can be healthy – I played football or baseball or got outside and did other things. I think that was important growing up.”
As is similar with many American born NHL players, the United States Hockey League and National Team Development Program gave Stuart an edge in his continuing success. With a natural progression in motion, for Stuart, college hockey was the next step. It was Colorado College that held a glove in the development process both on and off the ice.
“It was huge, I think going to Ann Arbor in high school and playing for the national development program was a big step for me with leaving home,” said Stuart. “College was a different level, I learned a lot there and not only hockey wise, it was about balancing school and hockey and that schedule. It helped me with organization. I played three years and CC and that was certainly what I needed to take the next step.”
Hard work paid off and Stuart become part of the Boston Bruins organization in 2005, playing with their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence during his first season. From that season on, time spent in the AHL was minimal as Stuart became a defensive powerhouse and fan favorite for the black and gold until the 2010-11 season. On February 28, 2011, Stuart was traded to the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers, with Boston on a beeline to the Stanley Cup, Stuart found himself in a new city.
Time in Atlanta was short lived, when the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the Jets. Playing hockey in a Canadian city is an experience like none other. Perhaps the same can be said about playing hockey in Florida. With the lockout in full effect this past season and players hitting the European ice, Stuart took a different approach and spent time with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL.
“It was a blast, for most of the lockout I was in Winnipeg skating with a few guys, we tried our best to stay positive and stay in shape but it was getting pretty old. I was happy to have the opportunity to play somewhere and Florida was great,” said Stuart. “The coaches and the players were all nice and accepted me right away, I didn’t play many games, I think 8 or 9 but it was fun to get back into it. You don’t realize how much you miss the game until you have to take that extra time off.”
No stranger to the NHL ice, Stuart has found himself a key component to the roster for many seasons. But the memories that stand out the most are what keeps him skating towards the ultimate prize each year.
“I think winning the World Junior Championship and then playing in my first NHL game. My pro career, just playing in the playoffs in general is probably my best memory. Just having that chance to win the Stanley cup, I haven’t won one yet but playing in the playoffs is an experience in and of itself.”
With the majority of Stuarts’ career played in Boston, an Original Six city, switching the gears to Winnipeg and experiencing the dedication the fans hold for the Jets has been easy to accept.
“The passion that the fans have. Winnipeg missed having an NHL team a lot when the original Jets left. They were itching for a long time to get one back, when they finally did it was pretty special,” said Stuart. “People follow the game, know the game, they’re educated hockey fans and they really enjoy coming to watch us play at home and it shows – sold out arena and people are pretty loud. As a player, it’s a fun place to play in, you feel lucky to be in a place like that.”
Of course, time until opening night is skating by slowly, but the preparations for training camp go into effect soon after a season ends. Staying the same is never an option, but finding ways to up your game certainly is.
“I think you’re always looking to improve, I think even the best players in the league are working on something. But for me, I needed the summer to make sure I’m getting stronger, because the most important thing is to not get injured,” said Stuart. “But also work on speed and skating, to become a better skater. Just thinking about what our team can do better to win games and take the next step and make the playoffs because so far in Winnipeg we haven’t done that yet.”
With NHL camps beginning in September, players will head back to their in season homes in mid-August. Time spent with family during the summer doesn’t hold the same type of camaraderie that fills a locker room.
“Just seeing the guys again and getting started,” said Stuart. “Summer is nice to take a break and spend time with family, but as the summer winds down you really look forward to seeing the guys, getting back in the locker room and out on the ice and get the season started. You’ve put in the work and trained, but it’s a lot of fun to start playing again.”
Some players personalities mirror their on ice intensity, for Stuart it’s a bit different.
“I would say I’m not the same person on the ice, I tend to be a bit more serious on the ice than off of it. I’m pretty easy going and I like to do a lot of different things. On the ice, I try to bring a little bit of an edge and play hard.”
People may not realize that off-season training is just as rigorous as the regular season, although it holds a bit more downtime. Being a professional means dedication 365 days a year, the summer brings a happy medium for Stuart.
“During the week, we train pretty early get up at 6, in the gym by 7 then work out a few hours. We’ll skate for an hour or so and then after that it’s about enjoying the day. I have family around the Minneapolis area so I get to see them a bit. Not a big golfer, but occasionally I’ll golf. Mainly just enjoy the sun.”
With hard work, dedication and a true appreciation for the game, it’s no wonder Jets fans are proud to support the all American guy as he loves every minute playing in the Canadian city of Winnipeg.