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It’s a Wonderful Life

Pens Trainer Has Cause for Celebration

Pittsburgh Penguins trainer Chris Stewart ’93, M’96 attended to team captain Sidney Crosby during a game against the Carolina Hurricanes last April. Jake Guentzel is at left. (Justin Aller/Pittsburgh Penguins)

To find the definition of good fortune, crack open Webster’s dictionary—or simply take a peek at Chris Stewart’s résumé.

Stewart has lived a charmed life since graduating from IUP, especially since the Pittsburgh Penguins hired him as their head athletic trainer in 2006. Consider that he has hoisted the Stanley Cup on the ice moments after a National Hockey League championship was won; taken part in a downtown victory parade through a mob of exultant fans; visited the White House and the nation’s president in the company of his team; spent an entire day with the oldest trophy in North American professional team sports; and had his name engraved alongside the greats of the game on said trophy.

Now consider he’s done all of that multiple times. Charmed life indeed.

“It’s so surreal,” said Stewart ’93, M’96, a product of an informal, predecessor program to IUP’s official athletic training program. “I’ve just been lucky. Right spot, right time, right team.”

Chris Stewart hoisted the Stanley Cup moments after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the National Hockey League championship in Nashville last June. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Chris Stewart hoisted the Stanley Cup moments after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the National Hockey League championship in Nashville last June. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

The right spot on a weekend morning in September turned out to be Stewart’s Canonsburg home. Mike Bolt, one of the official “Keepers of the Cup,” paid him a visit, bearing Lord Stanley’s venerable hardware. Tradition dictates that members of the NHL’s reigning championship team—players, coaches, management, medical staff, etc.—each get to spend a designated day with the Cup. For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For Stewart, it’s old hat. This was the fourth time the trophy has crossed his threshold.

In fact, Stewart’s name has been engraved more times on the silver bands that list representatives of past winners than many NHL Hall of Famers. More times than Pens superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, for that matter. And here’s a mind-boggling fact to ponder: Stewart has celebrated more league championships than the Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, and Tampa Bay Lightning have in their histories. Combined. Now that’s the definition of good fortune.

“I’ve just been lucky. Unbelievably lucky,” said Stewart, who launched his career in 1996 as a trainer for his hometown Johnstown Chiefs, then a member of the East Coast Hockey League. “That’s all you can say.”

The Cup had already spent the summer months traveling through the United States and Canada and to Russia, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland by the time Bolt brought it to Canonsburg. Stewart and his wife, the former Kimberly Cunkelman ’95, and their children—Christian, 18; Rylie, 14; and Addison, 7—were soon buzzing around the 35-pound, three-foot-high trophy like flies at a picnic.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015-16 roster on the Stanley Cup (Michael Henninger) Stewart pointed to one of four etchings of his name on the trophy. (Michael Henninger)

Top: The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2015-16 roster on the Stanley Cup (Michael Henninger). Bottom: Stewart pointed to one of four etchings of his name on the trophy. (Michael Henninger)

“We had a gathering here at my house with my family in the morning. My wife’s family, too,” Stewart said. “Took a lot of photos. My kid’s a senior at Canon-McMillan High School, so he got his senior picture with the Cup—that’ll be a little different. Then we had a party in the afternoon and the evening in the neighborhood with some friends. So it was low-key, but it was a good time. Just sharing it with friends and family made it special.”

Stewart’s first encounter with the Cup came as an NHL rookie back in 2006, when he was associate athletic trainer for the Carolina Hurricanes. After they downed the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of the finals, Stewart reveled in all the perks of working for the league’s top team: He got to lift the Cup on the ice at the RBC Center in Raleigh after it had been passed from player to player; rode through downtown Raleigh in a victory parade; spent a day with the Cup in Johnstown; and had his name added to the base of the trophy, which was first presented to a hockey champion in 1893.

“I was like, oh wow, I can’t believe it,” Stewart said. “One year in the NHL, and this is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that you don’t think you’re going to achieve the first time you set foot into the league.”

Soon after that, the Penguins hired Stewart as their head trainer, a real thrill for a western Pennsylvania native who grew up rooting for the team. Stanley Cup titles followed in 2009 and 2016. Then, last spring, the Pens vanquished Columbus, Washington, Ottawa, and Nashville in the playoffs to become the first NHL franchise to repeat as champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

“As tough as it is to win it once, to do it back to back was a big challenge for those guys,” Stewart said. “Watching this team come together and peak at the right time, knowing from the beginning of the season they’ve got the opportunity to do that, and then seeing it come to fruition, was just unreal.”

The IUP football training staff at the 1993 NCAA Division II championship game in Alabama. From left: Chad Cooke ’97, M’01, Jim Racchini ’94, D’07, Ron Trenney ’84, Rich Staffen ’94, and Stewart. (Courtesy of Ron Trenney)

The IUP football training staff at the 1993 NCAA Division II championship game in Alabama. From left: Chad Cooke ’97, M’01, Jim Racchini ’94, D’07, Ron Trenney ’84, Rich Staffen ’94, and Stewart. (Courtesy of Ron Trenney)

As was the turnout for the Penguins’ victory parade. An estimated 650,000 fans—incredibly, a quarter-million more than the year before—clogged downtown Pittsburgh, standing 20 deep on the sidewalks, leaning out of windows, peering down from every level of parking garages. They created an eardrum-rattling din as the procession of vehicles carrying the Penguins snaked through the streets en route to Point State Park. Admittedly, the response was a bit more subdued in Stewart’s section of the caravan.

“In certain areas it gets pretty loud,” he said. “It depends what part of the parade you’re in. If you’re near the front, like me, and the players aren’t around, the fans are a little quieter. If you’re around certain players with certain trophies, they really get going.”

Whether the fans acknowledge him with cheers or not, there’s no denying Stewart contributed immeasurably to the success that generated such an outpouring of support. Stewart strives to keep the players healthy and to help those who are injured recover as quickly as possible so they can return to the ice. Having a Crosby or a Malkin on skates rather than on the inactive list can mean the difference between the Penguins’ winning the Stanley Cup finals or watching them on TV.

Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)

Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)

Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)

“We have a great staff here, from our team doctors to my staff to the strength and conditioning staff and the sports science staff,” Stewart said. “Together, it’s a group effort to help these players succeed at the highest level they can.”

Stewart never could have envisioned a future in hockey at all, much less one involving NHL championships, during his time at IUP, when his mentors were the Trenney brothers. Ron Trenney ’84, now assistant professor/chair of Kinesiology, Health, and Sport Science, headed the training program from 1986 to 1997; Frank Trenney ’92, formerly an assistant under his brother, now runs the program.

“I always worked football at IUP—that was the main sport,” Stewart said. “I’d never worked hockey until I graduated and walked into a job at Western Pennsylvania Sports Medicine. They were contracting with the Chiefs. That’s how I got started with hockey. I never dreamed that it would lead to this.”

In March 2016, the full Penguins squad congratulated Stewart on his 1,500th NHL game. (Joe Sargent/Pittsburgh Penguins)

In March 2016, the full Penguins squad congratulated Stewart on his 1,500th NHL game. (Joe Sargent/Pittsburgh Penguins)

When he enrolled at IUP, serving as a trainer for a professional team of any sort wasn’t even on Stewart’s radar.

Stewart’s collection of championship rings before the fourth for the 2017 title was added (Michael Henninger)

Stewart’s collection of championship rings before the fourth for the 2017 title was added (Michael Henninger)

“I was just looking at starting a clinic, working a clinic, and covering high school sports, and seeing where it goes from there,” he said. “Then, when I was on the football training staff, we went to the championship game in Alabama one year [1993]. Seeing us go that far and being part of that process and seeing how everybody pulled together and made sure everything was working medically and making sure the players were taken care of—I grasped that idea and held onto that. I was looking maybe to get into professional sports, to be a part of a team like that, where I knew I was helping, making a difference. That’s probably the moment where it hit me that a pro team is what I wanted to look at.”

In the years since, he has raised the Stanley Cup on the ice after title-clinching triumphs, run his fingers over his name engraved at its base, and beamed like a kid on Christmas morning during victory parades, White House visits, and personal days with the Cup. Chris Stewart has indeed lived a charmed life.

“I’ve been fortunate—I know that,” he said. “I met the right people, knew the right people, and was put in the right situations. That’s just luck. Everything has really worked out for me, without a doubt. I don’t have one complaint or regret.”

Below are more images from the party Chris held for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. Click on any image to launch a slideshow of the full-size versions.

Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)
Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)
Stewart, with his mother, Kathryn, hoisted the Stanley Cup moments after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the National Hockey League championship in Nashville last June. (Joe Sargent/Pittsburgh Penguins)
Chris Stewart with his family on his designated day with the Stanley Cup in September. From left: Stewart and his wife, Kimberly Cunkelman Stewart ’95, daughter Addison (in front), son Christian, daughter Rylie, and mother Kathryn Stewart. (Michael Henninger)
Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)
Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)
Tradition dictates that members of the NHL championship team each get to spend one day with the Stanley Cup. On his designated day, Stewart hosted a party for family and friends at his Canonsburg home. (Michael Henninger)