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Rivermen’s Stuart setting an example off the ice

by Angie Sammons and David Rak || AHL On The Beat Archive

What does rock star and U2 lead singer Bono have in common with Peoria Rivermen fifth-year defenseman Mike Stuart?

Your first response might be “Huh?” And your second response is probably “Absolutely nothing.” Honored as one of Time magazine’s “Persons of the Year” in 2005, Bono wasn’t selected for what he does on the stage in front of millions of adoring fans, but rather, he was selected for his contributions to society and his efforts in making this world a better place.

And while the 26-year-old Stuart would most likely be the first to tell you he’s just an ordinary guy who happens to enjoy the game of hockey, there’s much more to him than that, as evidenced by his selection as Peoria’s American Specialty/AHL Man of the Year and his nomination for the AHL’s 2006 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, given to the player who has made outstanding contributions to his local community and charitable organizations.

Despite suffering a preseason setback due to a shoulder injury which cost him the first 20 games of the 2005-06 season, Stuart always kept a smile on his face, delving into community relations from the start of the season with full energy and force. And you needn’t look too far for his motivation.

“It probably has a lot to do with my parents and with the example they set for us,” said Stuart, whose siblings – Colin (24), Mark (22) and Cristin (20) – all play hockey professionally or in college. “It’s really about doing what you can for people in different situations than you. Our parents have always made us aware of the blessings and the gifts that we’ve been given and not to take them for granted.

“Whenever you have the opportunity to do something for someone else, you take advantage of it because you have so much,” Stuart continued. “They (my parents) led by example and it wasn’t hammered down our throats. It was easy to notice how you’re supposed to be by the example they set.

“(Former NHL player) Shjon Podein is from my hometown (Rochester, Minn.) and is very active in the community,” Stuart added about his positive influences. “He works with several different organizations and has his own children’s foundation and golf tournament back home. He’s always doing things for the less fortunate, the sick children.”

Podein, a veteran of nearly 700 NHL games with his final 91 coming in a St. Louis Blues uniform, is not a bad example either, having been awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy following the 2000-01 season. The King Clancy Memorial Trophy is awarded to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution to his community.

An early-February 2006 visit to Westview School in Canton, Ill. (a 40-minute drive west from Peoria), provided an example of what kind of person Mike Stuart is. Stuart and fellow defenseman Aaron MacKenzie agreed to be the featured guest readers and kicked off the event by reading a book to the collective group of attentive primary school children and their families.

As the large group was broken into three smaller groups, Stuart and MacKenzie facilitated their own smaller group session. Led mostly by Stuart, they participated in question-and-answer sessions, discussing their hockey backgrounds and even offering a scattering of hockey trivia questions for a chance to win tickets to a Rivermen game.

Stuart’s ability to delicately handle difficult questions asked, while maintaining the utmost respect for everyone in the room and answering the questions far more meticulously than expected, and his everyman explanation of what different penalties are called and why (using a broom as a prop to help children visualize what each penalty is and how many minutes a player spends in the box — “time-out” — if that player breaks the rules) epitomize his recognition as a Rivermen community ambassador and the motivation behind his nomination for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award.

These facts are certainly not lost on Stuart, just not given much focus.

“I didn’t expect it at all,” Stuart said. “It wasn’t part of my motivation (for getting involved). It’s nice to be recognized and is certainly an honor."

One of the more heart-wrenching appearances during the season are those to the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, and Stuart would be the first to tell you the one-on-one interaction truly makes the experience a special one not only for the kids but also for the players.

It can be quite a struggle to see a small child confined to a hospital bed and equally rewarding to see a smile on the face of a young person who would otherwise have very little reason to smile considering their condition. Yet to see their eyes light up when Stuart and other players hand them an autographed hat is one of the greatest memories a player will take away from the season, either on or off the ice.

“I hope I can continue to do the same things this year,” Stuart said, with regard to being dedicated and involved in team community relations. “I want to do even more. I hope someone else can win the award because I know other guys do a lot of things in the community as well.”

It should be noted that Stuart turned his cash award for being Peoria’s nominee for the 2006 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award into hockey-themed gifts and bestowed them on the Child Life Department at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois.

As the refrain and the title from the U2 song goes, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”… and that’s why Mike Stuart is there to help.