Tony Saxon, Mercury staff
GUELPH — Bill Stewart has served his time.
For the first time in 10 years, the one-time NHL defenceman and American Hockey League coach of the year will get to coach on home soil as an assistant with the Guelph Storm.
“It’s been 10 years. Am I a better coach? Definitely. Am I a better person? I’d like to think so,” Stewart, 54, said during training camp workouts at the Sleeman Centre Thursday.
The last time Stewart, 54, had an official capacity on a players’ bench on this continent was 1999-2000 when he guided the Barrie Colts to the Memorial Cup final.
While that Colts team was a success on the ice, it was widely regarded as a bit of a gong show off it.
It witnessed: an attempt to smuggle a Ukrainian player across the border in the luggage compartment of the team bus; a player charged with an on-ice assault; others with sexual assault; and, a display of unsportsmanlike behaviour at the Memorial Cup in Halifax that included the team marching out of the official banquet.
Instead of propelling him to another shot at a professional job, the year in Barrie left Stewart as something of a persona non grata in Canada’s hockey world.
The one-time Kitchener Ranger confirmed he had to get permission from OHL commissioner Dave Branch to be on the Storm bench this season.
“There were a lot of characters in Barrie. It was a very difficult situation,” he says without going into too much detail.
Asked if he wished he had handled the situation differently, Stewart nods.
“That certainly affected my existence in North America. I’ve kept in contact with a lot of people in North America and they know what I’ve been through.”
Guelph affords him a fresh start.
“I’ve been away 10 years and I wanted to come back, have some fun and help this team out,” said Stewart, who calls Bobcaygeon home.
He says Guelph is a good fit and a good opportunity to re-acclimatize himself to the league and get back on the North American hockey radar.
“I just want a new challenge and when you’re in Europe for 10 years, it’s a long time. My two previous times coaching in this league with Barrie and Oshawa were very successful and I enjoyed it. Sometimes when you enjoy things you want to revisit that area of your life.”
That 1999-2000 Barrie team included four players under the influence of controversial former player agent Dave Frost, including Mike Jefferson (later Danton) who would eventually be jailed for trying to have Frost killed.
“You always learn from mistakes, and if you don’t learn from mistakes they’re not mistakes,” he said in discussing the year in Barrie.
“There was a lot of success there, but it was a very difficult thing to deal with. I learned from it and I’m a better person for it now.”
After Barrie, Stewart headed to Europe, coaching various teams in the German elite league.
And while his tenure in Barrie made him a target of much criticism and was the root of wariness in some circles, you can’t ignore the fact that Stewart knows the game.
In nine full seasons as a head coach, Stewart has had a winning record in every one of them. That includes a 41-win season as head coach of the Oshawa Generals in 1996-97, followed by his AHL coach of the year recognition with the Saint John Flames the following year.
That earned him a 35-game stint as head coach of the New York Islanders the next season.
Prior to coaching Stewart played several seasons in Europe and it was during that time 25 years ago that he met and formed a solid friendship with now Storm general manager Mike Kelly.
They are hockey’s odd couple: Stewart big, gregarious and with a longshoreman’s handshake and mouth to boot. Kelly looking like your high school science teacher and a man that rarely, if ever, utters a profanity.
“He’s a mentor for me since the Barrie days,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to explain. We’re different, but we speak the same language in the hockey world and maybe I’ve taken a bit of who he is as a person.
“He’s been the guy who’s been very stern with Bill Stewart in some instances, there’s no doubt about that, and I think there’s mutual respect there between us.”
Time and experience have mellowed the man once known in some German hockey circles as Wild Bill.
“I guess what I’m looking for now is a little patience and longevity in whatever I do and wherever I go . . . once you hit 10 years of coaching you re-evaluate your successes and your experiences and you learn from it.”
The Storm hosts the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors Saturday at 2 p.m. in their first of six exhibition games.
Tony Saxon is a Mercury staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org