In another time and place, the Flyers’ hiring of Chris Stewart to player development coach probably wouldn’t draw all that much attention.
But this is 2020 and the National Hockey League is making a point to improve and enhance its inclusion policy for all ethnic groups and nationalities.
The Flyers made a positive statement on Monday by naming Stewart to the aforementioned position.
While Stewart, who retired after playing for eight different NHL teams, knows hockey inside-out and his hiring stands on its own merit, it’s worth noting some people believe moves such as these can lead to the possibility of a Black NHL head coach someday.
There has been only one Black head coach – Dirk Graham of the Chicago Blackhawks – in the history of the NHL and he lasted less than a full season back in 1998-99.
Stewart could very well be in the running for such a position in the years ahead.
As a member of the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, Stewart knows a move like this demonstrates progress.
“For sure,’’ Stewart said during a media conference call. “Getting hired and seeing some people in different positions, I think it’s a step in the right direction.
“As far as the Alliance, we’re currently working on some pilot programs that we’re looking to roll out here at the top of the year (2021).
“We do have some big announcements that we’ve been working on the last couple months.’’
Who knows? Stewart could be the one who pioneers the 21st century movement by running a team someday, either as a coach or GM.
“I think this is just getting my foot in the door,’’ said Stewart. “There’s tons of experience in the guys that I’m eager to learn under.
“As far as the future, I don’t want to go too far down the road. I’m still a young guy (32). I have three kids, I want to enjoy my family. I do want to get my foot in the door here and start building something post-career.’’
Stewart played only 16 games for the Flyers last season and a handful more for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Injuries kept him off the ice for a large portion of the campaign.
He knew he wanted to stay in the game and this is a good opportunity to do so.
“I think it was a pretty easy decision,’’ Stewart said. “When I was offered the position, I’d always had aspirations of staying involved in hockey once I did decide to retire. With a prestigious organization like the Flyers and having my relationship with the management there over my career, I think it’s going to be a great fit.’’
Stewart’s relationship with GM Chuck Fletcher probably played a major role in this hiring. The two go back a long way.
Stewart was acquired by Fletcher as GM on three separate occasions. He traded for Stewart on March 2, 2015 at the deadline with the Wild, and again signed him as a free agent on July 1, 2016 to join Minnesota for the 2016-17 season.
Fletcher then signed Stewart to a Pro Try-Out in July of 2019 to join the Flyers at training camp and later signed him to a one-year contract on Oct. 15, 2019.
“The Flyers are excited to have Chris Stewart join our team in a hockey operations role after an excellent career in the NHL,” said Fletcher.
“I’ve known Chris for a long time and have admired the way he plays the game, but also how he conducts himself off the ice as a true professional and leader in the locker room. He will be a valuable asset to help mentor our young players and shape their future as Flyers.”
Stewart was asked about the nature of his new position. Just the fact he will be on the road a lot should present its own set of challenges.
“This year I’m going to be traveling, seeing some prospects,’’ he said. “I’m going to be going down to Lehigh and working with some guys. Kind of just help the guys coming through and get acclimated to the pro game, get their games to where they’ll be seeing some NHL time.’’
Stewart has played with the Phantoms and he’s young enough to relate to nearly all of the players.
He knew it was time to hang up the skates.
“Once I was assigned to Lehigh, I kind of knew inside,’’ he said. “If I wasn’t going to be able to play in the NHL, I knew inside that I was going to be ready to move on. Just being down there, seeing the guys that are trying to come through.
“When I got sent there, I think two guys right away got sent to Reading, to the ECHL. I’ve had my time. I’ve played 13 years professionally. The decision was easy. I didn’t want to take any opportunities away from guys who are pinching, kicking and clawing to start their career and trying to build. It was an easy decision.’’
His brief time in Allentown was enough to build some relationships which should help the process and transition.
“Exactly,’’ he said. “Having a personal rapport and building that relationship, having someone they can trust, someone’s who played the game and retired recently has stepped in to the role. I think a guy like me, I was 15 years old and a walk-on in the OHL. Two years later, I was a first round draft pick in the OHL and went on to play 698 games.
“I’ve been a first line player. I’ve been relied on to contribute nightly. Over the later parts of my career, I kind of transitioned into a role player. I don’t think there hasn’t been anything that I haven’t seen in the NHL as far as being traded and being waived. I’ve played in Europe. I’ve kind of seen it all and done it all and lived it firsthand. I think having that respect for the players and earning that respect is going to go a long way.’’
Ultimately, his relationship with Fletcher sealed the deal.
“I’ve played for Chuck Fletcher for about a third of my career from Minnesota to here. Just to live in the environment that he’s created for the players and the families has always been first-class and always felt like a family atmosphere. I was offered the position and no better learning under the guy who’s signed me twice, waived me twice and traded for me once. I think he’s an elite stature to learn under.’’
A native of Toronto, Ontario, Stewart compiled 160 goals and 162 assists for 322 points in 668 regular season games for Colorado (2008-09 – 2010-11), St. Louis (2010-11 – 2013-14), Buffalo (2013-14 – 2014-15), Minnesota (2014-15, 2016-17 – 2017-18), Anaheim (2015-16), Calgary (2017-18) and the Flyers (2019-20).