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Hockey a family affair for Stuarts

The names of families that have had a great impact on professional hockey dot the history of the sport. A list of the greatest hockey families would likely include the surnames of Bentley, Esposito, Howe, Hull, Mullen, Patrick, Poile, Richard, Stastny and Sutter, to name a few.

Soon, one may be able to add the name Stuart to a list of the greatest hockey families. Like that of the Sutter family, the story of the Stuart hockey family is one of several hockey-playing siblings, in this case four.

At 25, Peoria Rivermen defenseman Mike Stuart is the eldest of the Stuart kids. His name may seem familiar to Rivermen fans because he has played in Peoria before. Back in his rookie season of 2002-03, Stuart appeared in 19 games with Peoria before earning a permanent promotion to the AHL’s Worcester IceCats.

Although Mike experienced the thrill of playing in two NHL games with the St. Louis Blues in 2003-04, he missed most of that season after suffering a sports hernia that required surgery. Last season with Worcester, the six-foot, 192-pound blueliner played in a career-high 70 games, scoring one goal and 10 assists and recording 26 minutes in penalties.

He has appeared in 13 games with the Rivermen in 2005-06, who are in their first season after making the jump to the AHL.

This season marks the second professional campaign for Colin Stuart, a six-foot-one, 230-pound winger. The 23-year-old Colin was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001, and is in his second season skating for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

Mark Stuart ranks as perhaps the family’s best NHL prospect. The 21-year-old defenseman was drafted by Boston with the 21st overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and is currently a rookie with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. He enjoyed three stellar seasons of hockey at Colorado College, and served as captain and led the Tigers to an appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four in 2005.

Colin Stuart is in his second season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

Mark also captained the United States to its first-ever gold medal victories in both the World Junior Championships (2004) and the World Under-18 Championships (2002).

Mike Stuart’s youngest sibling is his sister Cristin. She is currently a student at Boston College, and 2005-06 marks her sophomore season as a member of the Boston College women’s ice hockey team. Like her brothers Mike and Mark, Cristin plays defense.

Ironically, the leaders of this hockey family, parents Michael and Nancy Stuart, had little interest in hockey before their children began playing the sport. Born and raised just to the northeast of Peoria in LaSalle-Peru, Ill., Michael and Nancy met during their high school years and eventually married in 1978 after Michael had completed his undergraduate work at DePauw University and Nancy had finished her studies at the University of Illinois.

The couple then moved to Chicago so Michael could attend the Rush Presbyterian Medical School. While living in the Chicago area, the couple welcomed into the world their first two sons Mike (1980) and Colin (1982). From there, the family moved to Rochester, Minn., where Michael began his residency at the renowned Mayo Clinic. In 1984, Mike’s brother Mark was born, and then Cristin came along in 1986.

As Mike explains, he and his family were first exposed to the sport of hockey through his father’s career.

“My father wanted to go into sports medicine, so as a part of his studies at the Mayo Clinic, he was assigned to be the team doctor for the Rochester Mustangs junior hockey team,” Mike said. “Colin and I started going to the games with him, and we really enjoyed that. That’s how we first became interested in hockey.

“Our parents didn’t really know what to do when Colin and I showed an interest in hockey, so they signed us up for a skating class, and we ended up in a figure-skating class. Colin and I had hockey skates, and everyone else was wearing figure skates, so they sent us over to another rink in the facility there where a hockey class was going on.

“We started skating there and really enjoyed it, so we took more classes,” Mike said. “Then we got into playing youth hockey in the Rochester area, and we all played.”

Providence rookie Mark Stuart was a first-round draft pick by Boston in 2003.

Once Mike’s parents recognized the passionate interest in hockey that each of their children had developed, they went to great lengths to help their kids explore the sport further.

“When my dad finished his residency and was asked to be a staff doctor,” Mike recalled, “we moved into a bigger house in Rochester, and my dad built us a (hockey) rink in our backyard. We’d just throw on our skates and go right out there. We’d play until it got too cold or dark.

“Also during that time, we had maybe four to six different Mustangs players live with us over the course of several years. That was great because that gave us someone else to play with and learn hockey from. And we’d go to their games on Friday and Saturday nights and watch them. That gave us a different perspective, seeing those guys play and work so hard. Seeing how they moved away from home to play, and their dedication. That really inspired us, and we really looked up to them.”

Now, each member of the Stuart family loves the game of hockey, and all three of the Stuart brothers have the potential to play at the highest level of professional hockey in the NHL.

Says Mike, “That’s what we’re all working for now, to play in the NHL. Now we all live in Minneapolis and work out together in the offseason, and I think being brothers works to our advantage. I think there’s a natural competitiveness among siblings, and we push each other toward that goal.”

Bentley, Esposito, Howe, Hull, Mullen, Patrick, Poile, Richard, Stastny, and Sutter. If Mike, Colin, and Mark achieve their goal, any list of great hockey families will have to include the Stuarts.