SPOKANE, USA – Coming from celebrity parents, Liam Stewart doesn’t have the traditional pedigree for Canadian major junior hockey. However, that’s not stopping this 17-year-old Spokane Chiefs centre from pursuing his dreams of a pro and international career.
Not only is Stewart garnering attention as a Western Hockey League (WHL) rookie, but he’s also recently been declared eligible to compete for Great Britain internationally, providing another intriguing twist in his story.
Born in London, England, Stewart is the son of British rock singer Rod Stewart and New Zealander actress-model Rachel Hunter, but grew up in Southern California. He caught the hockey bug after attending a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden as a tyke, and has been skating since age 5.
Now, the great thing about this sport is that you have to work for whatever you get. For instance, neither of Wayne Gretzky’s pro hockey-playing brothers, Keith and Brent, got a free pass simply due to their oldest sibling’s fame.
<table align="right" width="90"><tbody><tr><td>Liam StewartRod StewartRachel Hunter
Accordingly, Stewart relishes the challenge of carving out his own identity. His father is noted for kicking soccer balls into the audience at his concerts, while his mother favours rugby. Hockey? That’s Liam’s passion. That’s why he left behind the palm trees of Hermosa Beach, California to suit up in Washington State’s second-largest city and experience the 72-game WHL grind.
“I think of myself being as normal as anyone else,” explained Stewart in an interview at the Spokane Arena. “I’m known for my parents, but I’m trying to focus on being known as my own person, not having famous parents.”
Despite sniping 24 goals in 34 games last year with the Los Angeles Junior Kings, Stewart knew he’d have to improve his strength, conditioning, and intensity to compete in the WHL. He’s currently listed at 6-1 and 180 pounds (185 cm and 82 kg).
“The physicality of the game, the speed, the strength of all the guys – it’s a lot different from last year,” Stewart said. “In the summer, I did a lot of explosive leg training to get my speed up. I also worked on my shot. And here, I’ve learned a lot from [head coach and ex-NHLer] Don Nachbaur. He really preaches work ethic and hard-nosed play.”
The work Stewart’s put in so far has earned him third-line duties with the Chiefs, who last captured the Memorial Cup in 2008. Striving to get his offensive game going, he’s recently centered wingers like Carter Proft and Connor Chartier.
Early reviews have been positive. Shane Malloy, the Vancouver-based author of the 2011 book The Art of Scouting, stated: "Stewart is a promising two-way centre with solid skating and good work ethic in all situations. Even with limited ice time this season, he's showing good hockey sense and puck skills. He's also not afraid to pay the price to make a play, and that's encouraging to see.”
Since Stewart often attended Kings games while growing up, it’s not surprising some of his NHL role models come from that franchise. “I try to play a little bit like Jarret Stoll,” he said. “He’s more of a defensive player, and he has a good shot on the power play.” Stewart has also enjoyed playing volleyball in the off-season with the likes of Drew Doughty and Matt Greene.
However, while any hopes of stepping on NHL ice lie several years away, Stewart could get to wear the jersey of Great Britain as early as the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group A (March 31-April 6, Netherlands) if he’s available.
Earlier this year, his mother, who has leased a house in Spokane, investigated the possibility of having him declared IIHF-eligible to wear a British jersey.
This unusual case presented interesting complexities. Although residing in the United States, Stewart holds dual British and New Zealand citizenship. He couldn’t play for the Americans since he is not a citizen. And according to international eligibility rules, he couldn’t represent Great Britain or New Zealand either, since he hadn’t played a minimum of two years in either country.
So where would this leave him?
In writing, Stewart expressed his wish to play for Great Britain. This initiative was backed up by Andy French, the General Secretary of Ice Hockey UK, who told IIHF.com: “It was something that [British U18 coach] Mark Beggs had asked me to pursue, submitting all the relevant information I could obtain after speaking with Rachel Hunter and gathering everything that was required for the IIHF Council.”
With the authority given to them in the IIHF eligibility bylaw, the Council (the IIHF’s executive body), which met during the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress in Istanbul, Turkey in September, made an exemption under the extraordinary circumstances
article so Stewart could play internationally for a country he is a citizen of.
In order not to have any bias, the information about Liam’s well-known parents was withheld from the Council when the issue was presented. Only after the Council approved the exemption did IIHF Sport Director Dave Fitzpatrick mention their names.
This development should benefit both Stewart and Great Britain, which will aim to get back to the U18 Division I after suffering relegation in Division I play in Latvia last spring.
The British haven’t made the top-level IIHF World Championship since 1994 – the year Stewart was born – and could potentially use him in both the near and long term.
“With Liam playing in the WHL, it would be anticipated that he’d be one of the marquee players at the U18 tournament and should provide the necessary offense for Great Britain,” said Beggs.
Meanwhile, New Zealand is known for many things – the Lord of the Rings movies, whitewater rafting, glow worm caves – but thus far, hockey hasn't emerged as a calling card for this Southern Hemisphere nation, which sits 38th in the IIHF World Ranking. So it just made more sense for a player of Stewart’s talent to opt for his father’s homeland.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Stewart. “Hopefully I’ll be able to go over there when our season in Spokane is over and hopefully my dad’ll come watch too. He’ll be really proud of that.”
Rod Stewart is, of course, more of a Celtic Glasgow football fan than a puck aficionado, and his son shares his love of the Scottish club, although adding: “Cristiano Ronaldo is probably my favourite soccer player.”
Overall, Liam Stewart has typical teenage tastes. He quips that playing the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 “consumes most of my day after practice”, and likes chilling out with music ranging from hip-hop star Notorious B.I.G. to country performer Rodney Atkins.
When asked where he sees himself in five years, Stewart gives an answer that could have come from thousands of hockey-loving youngsters worldwide: “Hopefully either in the AHL or NHL. One of those would be a dream. If not, hopefully playing in Europe somewhere. Just playing hockey.”
LUCAS AYKROYDPortrait photos by Larry Brunt / Spokane Chiefs, David Becker, Theo Wargo, WireImage / Getty Images