Chris Stewart can identify with the lucky stiff who splurges on a Vegas vacation with his Lotto winnings, only to hit a jackpot in the first casino he enters.
Consider what has transpired over the last seven months: Stewart capped his rookie season as associate athletic trainer for the Carolina Hurricanes by celebrating an NHL championship; spent a day with the Stanley Cup in his hometown of Johnstown; returned to Western Pennsylvania this season as head trainer of the resurgent Pittsburgh Penguins; and was playfully razzed during the photo shoot for this profile by none other than hockey icon Mario Lemieux.
Defining “charmed life,” it seems, is more easily achieved by consulting Stewart rather than Webster’s.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “I can’t even explain how lucky I am.”
Stewart earned undergraduate (1993) and graduate (1996) degrees from IUP before toiling for ten years as a trainer in the minor leagues, mostly for the East Coast Hockey League’s Johnstown Chiefs. He was working for the American Hockey League’s Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monsters when the Hurricanes beckoned him to the big time.
“It was like a dream come true,” said Stewart, who is married to the former Kim Cunkelman, a 1995 IUP grad, and has two children, son Christian, 7, and daughter Rylie, 3. “Ten years working to get to that point, all those six-hour bus rides, all the sacrifices that I made and my family made, it was all worth it. It’s the ultimate goal and I achieved it. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was there.”
Stewart's Carolina Hurricanes NHL championship ring
Stewart recalls the night of his NHL debut with such clarity it’s as if it occurred fifteen minutes ago, not fifteen months ago. More than 22,000 fans—about ten times the crowd the Chiefs typically draw at the Cambria County War Memorial arena—packed the St. Pete Times Forum to cheer a 5-2 Tampa Bay Lightning victory over Carolina and the special ceremony that preceded it.
“The Lightning won the Cup the season before that, so they were raising their championship banner,” Stewart said. “It was so exciting. My first game in the NHL, and I had chills and all that good stuff with the banner going up, never dreaming that that year I was going to be part of a championship team myself.”
The surprising Hurricanes, coming off a sub-.500 season, bolted from the starting gate, went 13-1 in January, and eased to the Southeast Division title with a 52-22-8 record. They eliminated Montreal, New Jersey, and Buffalo in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs before beating Edmonton 3-1 at the RBC Center in Game 7 of the finals to bring North Carolina its first major professional team championship. Talk about beginner’s luck: Stewart finished his rookie year in the league sprawled at center ice with euphoric players and coaches, a smile threatening to swallow his face, as a photographer snapped a shot of the champions. His name has since been engraved on Lord Stanley’s sterling silver chalice, alongside immortals such as Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, and Rocket Richard.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” Stewart said. “Words can’t explain what it meant. It was the ultimate unexplainable thrill. I was just so lucky it happened in my first year. One of the equipment guys was in the league for thirty-five years and that was his first Stanley Cup.”
In a tradition unique to hockey, each member of the winning team—players, coaches, and staff—gets to spend a day with the championship trophy. Hijinks and hilarity invariably ensue. For example, the Cup wound up at the bottom of Lemieux’s backyard swimming pool at a Penguins celebration party in 1991. In subsequent years, New Jersey center Scott Gomez placed the trophy on a dogsled and mushed it through his hometown of Anchorage; New York Rangers captain Mark Messier showed it off on Late Show with David Letterman; and the daughter of Colorado defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre was baptized in the bowl atop the base.
Nothing quite so eventful occurred last September 11 when Stewart and an NHL official squired hockey’s holy grail around Cambria County.
“We just took it to different places,” he said. “My brother’s a state cop, so we took it over to the state police barracks in Ebensburg. Then I took it to a good friend in Ebensburg, to his house, because he’s been close to our family for a long time. We put it on display at the War Memorial for a couple hours, too. I’ll cherish everything about spending the day with the Stanley Cup. It was just basically about everybody in a small town getting to see something that they helped me attain.”
Stewart had by then left the employ of the Hurricanes, unable to resist the siren call of the Penguins. He welcomed the opportunity not only to return to his home area but to run the show in the training room. The health of franchise players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin now rests squarely in Stewart’s hands.
While his duties can seem mundane—taping, icing, treating injuries, supervising exercise regimens—trainers occasionally deal with weightier matters. For example, last season Detroit defenseman Jiri Fischer collapsed on the bench during a game with Nashville. Medical personnel scrambled to Fischer’s side, detected no pulse, and ultimately restored his heartbeat with the aid of a defibrillator. Their rapid response no doubt averted a tragedy.
“Basically, you’re in charge of the athlete’s well-being,” said Stewart, whose staff includes assistant trainer Scott Adams and physical therapist Mark Mortland. “At times, it’s your decision on whether a player gets up off the ice or needs to be taken off by an ambulance. That’s what they pay you to do—to make the smart decisions. So it is, at times, a high-stress job. You’re in charge of twenty-four guys on a daily basis. At any moment you could be performing CPR or rushing somebody to the hospital. You don’t know, so you have to be prepared for everything.”
The unexpected often occurs in the NHL—witness Carolina’s out-of-nowhere run to the Cup in Stewart’s rookie season in the league. He left the RBC Center after Game 7 feeling very much like a Lotto winner who just hit a jackpot in Vegas. Fortune continues to smile on the new head trainer of the up-and-coming Penguins.
After years spent riding cramped, chilly buses to various ECHL outposts, Chris Stewart, to paraphrase a Ricky Martin chart-topper, is livin’ la vida mágica. The charmed life.