Offseason Work Critical for Stewart
ST. LOUIS -- Chris Stewart understood change was necessary.
The St. Louis Blues' power forward, who had just experienced a sweep with the rest of his teammates against the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, completed the most challenging season of his brief four-year career in May.
After back-to-back 28-goal seasons, there were some that projected Stewart, 25, could become the League's next 40-goal scorer. And why not -- he displayed the ability to bulldoze his way to the net and power in goals just as easily as he's displayed soft hands with a deft touch in delicate areas.
However, Stewart never lived up to those higher expectations despite the Blues' amazing regular-season run in which they fell two points short of the Presidents' Trophy. Stewart's numbers fell to 15 goals and 30 points in 79 games, a season that featured him being relegated to third- or fourth-line status, decreased minutes and even a game in which he was a healthy scratch.
The exact words were never used but terms like "out of shape" and "overweight" were at times used to describe Stewart's physique.
However, after a visit with a hypo-allergist, Stewart found something that wasn't even on his radar: He's allergic to brown rice. It affected his metabolism and of course, made him feel bogged down in games.
Stewart is of Jamaican descent, and eating rice and peas was common from a house full of seven children.
Enter Matt Nichol, the founder and head strength and conditioning coach of Paragenix Systems. He was also the former strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Nichol would set the gears in motion to finding out the root of what ailed Stewart.
"Matt Nichol set it all up," Stewart told NHL.com. "He had the people come to my house, had the people take a couple vials of blood. It was weird because it was in this little cooler thing and I had to ship it off to Florida. I got the results in a couple weeks. They tested it for everything and it came back that in fact it was severe allergy to rice, which is weird. You've never seen anything like that.
"It's pretty bizarre, and growing up with a family full of seven kids, it's a lot of rice, especially from my Jamaican descent ... a lot of rice and peas. It's a very popular dish. It kind of sucks now, but now we know and we're on top of it and I never felt better."
Stewart said the conversation with Nichol was necessary. He knew something wasn't right.
"I told him I'm putting on weight during the season, but I'm not necessarily eating that bad," Stewart said. "He knew there was something going on."
It was another obstacle, but one Stewart took in stride and went back home to Toronto with a plan in mind. It involved a summer-long program that included weight training and a dietary regimen, orchestrated by Nichol.
"Not really unique. ... Everyone thinks that I went and saw this athletic guru or anything like that," Stewart said. "We just worked hard and we attacked it from a diet standpoint. I just really got ahead of the game and I'm on top of that.
"We did a little bit of MMA every Friday and sparring and stuff like that -- nothing too crazy."
Stewart was one of 10 Blues players who departed North America during the League lockout and played for Eispiraten Crimmitschau in Germany along with best friend and Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds. Stewart was eager to see his hard work put to the test somewhere since the NHL was involved in a prolonged work stoppage.
"There's only one way to get in game shape, and that's to go and play games," Stewart said. "That obviously wasn't the opportunity here and so I went over there with my best friend and we played together for two-and-a-half months and we had fun. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
And what did Stewart notice most about his time spent in Germany? A telling sign.
"I especially noticed over there ... last year come third period, I was a little tired," Stewart said. "This year when I was over there, the third period ... that's when I started to get going. I was playing 25-30 minutes a night over there. Not that I'm going to play that over here, but I did get in good shape playing over there."
When Stewart returned for the start of the 2012-13 NHL season, it was obvious that he looked leaner and in prime shape. The person who matters most noticed.
"He's done three things: he's lost weight, he's in great shape and he's focused," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Stewart. "He's done a heck of a job. The things to get to the next level off-ice as a player, he's done all that.
"He looks great. He looks like a different player on the ice. When you see him skate, it's way more fluid. He looks really good."
Stewart appreciated the early vote of confidence, since it was Hitchcock that challenged him through a trying season a year ago.
"He's the captain of this ship here, right," Stewart said. "It's good to know that he's going to back me 100 percent. The biggest thing is just putting last year behind me, learn from your mistakes and come in with a fresh start and just run with it."
Maybe a fresh slate and flying under the radar is what Stewart needed to jump out of the gate. He's supplied a scoring infusion this team has relied heavily on.
"This is the leanest I've ever been in my life," Stewart said. "I'm excited to put the training into results and help this team win the Stanley Cup."
Stewart needed just 36 games to matched the numbers he put up in 79 games a season ago. He leads the Blues in goals (16) and points (30) in a season after getting a one-year, $3-million contract from general manager Doug Armstrong. It was viewed as a prove-it contract.
Given the results, Stewart could go into this offseason with more leverage on a long-term deal and Armstrong could be open to the idea of affording more security. Stewart will be a restricted free agent in July.
"I was hoping for the best. I prepared for the best," Stewart said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy. It was going to be a lot of work.
"I think I wanted to prove it to myself. I was tired of living off potential with that skill-set I had where everyone was saying he's a good player, can make plays. I wanted to be consistent. I want to leave a mark on this league when I'm done. I feel like I'm taking steps in the right direction. Obviously having a good attitude helps."
Hitchcock believes Stewart's determination has him on the cusp of greater things.
"When you have big, skilled players who have a work ethic, they're hard to contain," Hitchcock said. "Chris is starting to have a strong work ethic on a nightly basis and he's starting to discover the difference between looking for space and fighting for space and he's fighting for space and he's having success. I think that resonates with him. ... He's willing to fight for that little piece of real estate that you need to have and then he's got the skill to finish it off."
For Hitchcock, he feels the biggest challenge wasn't attaining success -- it was figuring out why he was having success and continuing to do the things that brought about his productive seasons. Instead of thinking about scoring, Stewart is now thinking about competing and the scoring is taking care of itself.
"When you have skill players who operate like that, they're hard to play against," Hitchcock said. "I think that's what all the top skill players in the League figure out. Some guys naturally, guys like [Sidney] Crosby, [Zach] Parise ... they figured it out earlier in their lives. But some guys, when they come to the NHL and they've lived on their skill to get here, after a while, you can't live on your skill. You've got to live on your work. I think he's starting to figure out the harder he competes, the more he works, the more scoring chances he gets and the more success he has. I think he's really starting to figure it out."