NIPAWIN — Confidence has played a big role in Zander Stewart’s strong second season for the Nipawin Hawks.
After recording nine points in 42 games last season as a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League rookie, the 19-year-old has doubled that with 18 through 24 contests this campaign, as of Tuesday. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenceman ranked sixth among SJHL blue line scorers. The key to his success? Confidence.
“That’s all hockey is or all sports is – it is all confidence,” Stewart said. “You can’t play the sport well if you’re not confident. Confidence is definitely a big key for me.”
Hawks head coach Tad Kozun praised Stewart as a strong skater who can move pucks and get them on net. Stewart had four assists versus Yorkton earlier this season.
Kozun said Stewart has gotten better defensively and is willing to learn. He noted the defenceman is one of the Hawks returning from last season’s young squad that has taken the next step.
“Definitely having a season under the belt and learning from a lot of the older guys last year that I played with was definitely a help,” Stewart said. “Coming into this year, I was confident and every game I get more confident.”
With many of the Hawks back together for a second season, they have more experience and more chemistry, Stewart said. As of Tuesday, Maguire Ratzlaff was third in the SJHL with 17 goals. Alex Johnson’s 20 assists placed him fifth in the league. Johnson led Nipawin with 26 points, followed by Ratzlaff’s 23 and Joel Mabin and Stewart with 18 each. Carson Dobson was one behind at 17.
“We’ve all played a year together,” Stewart said. “Having that chemistry coming back definitely helped a lot.”
Last season Stewart and his rookie teammates had to adjust to the Junior A game and the SJHL style of play.
“Any junior level, everything gets faster,” he said. “it doesn’t matter where you are, where you’re playing – everything gets faster and more physical. Definitely in the SJ it’s more physical, so just learning how to take those hits in the corners, always going 100 per cent, can’t take a shift off or a night off. Just building consistency is definitely a big part of it.”
The defenceman has had the chance to play a bigger role this season and has embraced it.
“I’ve been given a lot more opportunity than I was last year … It’s been going well. I’m just trying to keep my consistency and hopefully just keep going and get better every day.”
He noted that the systems the Hawks are running under Kozun, in the former pro’s first full season as head coach, suit his game well. Stewarts appreciates that his head coach “gives me a lot of leeway, obviously with some repercussions.”
Before he came to the SJHL, the British Columbia product developed his game in academies in Penticton and Kelowna. Stewart said that it was during a season at Kelowna’s Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy (which is now the RINK Hockey Academy) that his offensive talents started to develop.
“I was always more of a stay-at-home guy,” he said. “When I got to Pursuit of Excellence there in Kelowna, I kind of just took the reins and started leading rushes and creating chances. Ever since that year, it has kind of stayed with my game and it’s gotten better and better.
“Just trying to be a full 200-foot defenceman. I think that’s what everyone wants, right? I think that’s what everyone in the NHL is doing. You don’t really see any stay-at-home or just full offensive defencemen. It’s the whole ice.”
Stewart grew up in Salmon Arm and West Kelowna. Moving to Saskatchewan, he has had to adjust to colder winters and living in a smaller community, but Stewart said he is having fun.
“The opportunity I’ve been given here in Nipawin has really been good,” he said “The fanbase .. everyone supports the Hawks here in Nipawin. … You are basically a celebrity in town.”
One of the best parts of being a Hawk is playing at the Centennial Arena – also known as the “Cage.”
“It is like nothing else … It’s always rocking in there,” Stewart said. “It really helps us to have that support. It’s a hard place to come in and play. We really enjoy it and we really love having the fan support. It really helps us out and means so much to us.”