Stewart’s supportive style paving way for T-birds goalies

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

When Springfield Thunderbirds goalie Joel Hofer fired a shot from his own end wall down toward an empty net last May against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the Calder Cup Playoffs, the tension and adrenaline inside the MassMutual Center was palpable.

When the puck hit the twine, the euphoria bubbled over — not just for the thousands of patrons in the stands, but for one coach sitting a few hundred feet away from his student in the press box.

“I was the biggest cheerleader. If you talk to (Blues development coach) Chris Thorburn, I think I might have chipped his tooth celebrating.”

Dan Stewart joined the St. Louis Blues organization in 2020 when he was hired as the goaltending coach for the club’s American Hockey League affiliate. A native of Port Hope, Ontario, about 100 kilometers east of Toronto, Stewart’s boyhood dream was to become a professional netminder of his own. While that did not ultimately materialize, his teenage years opened his eyes to the next best option.

“In the summers, I was teaching for Rick Heinz Goalie School, and the goalies seemed to react well to me,” Stewart recalls. “I really enjoyed the moments where something would click with somebody. I realized that I had a skill set that would help goalies, and I started to focus on [coaching] then.”

Stewart’s first high-profile position landed him in Sault St. Marie, Ont., with the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds. There he crossed paths with his future Springfield cohort Drew Bannister, who was the head coach at the time. When the Blues’ AHL goaltending coach role opened in 2020, it was Stewart who got the job, reuniting with Bannister in the process.

However, like any prepared interviewee, Stewart had already done the leg work to learn about who would become his young star pupil, Hofer.

“I started to see how smart he was in net, in his ability to make minute adjustments on his own as the play was developing. It was unique, and over his time in Springfield, you can see that he has adjusted well to [the AHL] level. I’m spoiled to work with him.”

At the tender age of 22, Hofer already sees himself near the very top of the AHL leaderboard across a variety of statistical categories. While his historic goal and his athleticism draw the most attention to the outside world, Stewart sees a more hidden side to Hofer’s game that distinguishes him.

“The biggest asset Joel has is his brain,” Stewart said. “As I’m introducing little concepts and little adjustments, he’s soaking it all in and utilizing it in his way, and we’re seeing the results of that. His calm demeanor is another huge asset. He is quietly one of the most competitive goalies I have ever coached — he hates not playing, and he hates getting scored on in practice. He is driven by that inner competitive nature.”

Stewart’s “day in the life” may only feature around 40 minutes of individualized on-ice work with his netminders, but like any former goaltender, it is the high point of each morning.

“It’s the part I’m most excited for, but it’s the shortest part of the day,” Stewart says.

So what makes up the rest of the day? Well, for starters, a full staff meeting kicks off every day before players even arrive, with the coaches collaborating to identify, among other things, how the squad’s netminders fit into the team’s overall schemes and systems. Then comes the most time-consuming portion, video work.

“There’s far more video work than on-ice work, and far more work behind the scenes than on the ice,” Stewart said. “Some of that is with the goalies, and some is just me on my own.”

As if his time in Springfield does not fill his plate enough, Stewart will also travel to work with more St. Louis goaltending prospects, such as ECHL Tulsa’s Colten Ellis and OHL Flint’s Will Cranley, who were drafted by St. Louis in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

But what does a goalie coach look for when watching a goalie on the ice or on video?

“First and foremost, we have our key principles to the position that I want to make sure are followed,” Stewart says, listing objectives ranging from reading offensive zone entries to maintaining poise and not committing too early. “From there, we identify what stage of development a goaltender is in and focus on certain things in their game along the way.”

The X’s and O’s with each player make up a key component to the job, like any coaching role, but Stewart emphasizes that his overall teaching philosophy starts with the human first.

“Right away, you have to establish a relationship and a trust level with the goalie, which then allows them to become the best version of themselves. It’s important that goalies realize that you are there for them, that you want to see them succeed, and that you’re not looking to make them into some specific type of goalie.”

Hofer and Stewart’s relationship is one rooted in optimism, according to the star netminder.

“Definitely his positivity,” Hofer said when asked about Stewart’s most noticeable quality. “[The AHL] is a really hard league and a demanding league, and he always comes in with a smile on his face. He loves what he does and it shows. His energy pushes all of us to be better.”

Hofer sees a world of difference in his own game less than two years after meeting Stewart.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without him, I’m super grateful. Ever since day one, we’ve bonded and over time, it has gotten stronger.”

Stewart’s people-first mentality has also revealed one spectacular NHL success story in the form of Washington Capitals backstop Charlie Lindgren. A Montreal Canadiens prospect who see-sawed between the NHL and AHL for five seasons before joining the Blues organization in 2021, Lindgren saw his career “re-started” last season for Springfield and St. Louis, where he went a combined 29-7-1 during the regular season. The right-gloved “Chucky Sideburns” turned heads in the Calder Cup Playoffs, shutting out his former club, the Laval Rocket, 4-0 to clinch the Eastern Conference championship in a Game 7.

Now, Lindgren is an NHL fixture in D.C., fresh off a free-agent contract signing last summer, and all he has done with Washington is win nine of his first 15 decisions. For the week ending Dec. 11, Lindgren earned NHL First Star of the Week honors when he won four games, allowing only six goals and stopping almost 95 percent of the shots he faced.

Stewart instantly deflected any praise of his work to the student.

“Charlie is Charlie. He was going to have success no matter who he worked with,” Stewart said. “At his age some goalies are not as receptive as he was, especially after being in the NHL previously. He was an unbelievable student, he bought in, and we were rewarded for it.”

Lindgren’s NHL revitalization is the type of moment that keeps Stewart returning to the rink each day.

“Seeing the goalies excel is the most rewarding part of my job, and seeing them feel good about things that we worked on carrying over into games,” Stewart said. “It’s rewarding, but in the end, Charlie did all of that work. When a player as competitive as Charlie comes along, and they are that good of a student, it’s a pretty easy job to help them on their path.”