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Old 09-13-2006, 12:39 AM   #5523
Clockwork Orange
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Chris Stewart: A Football Body, A Hockey Heart

CENTENNIAL - College football coaches could be forgiven for drooling over the possibility of recruiting a 260-pound tight end out of Canada who happened to own good hands and decent running ability.
To think, Chris Stewart was a mere lad of 15 at the time.

Fortunately for the Avalanche, Stewart's first love was hockey, so he traded his football gear for skates and a stick, and he eventually could develop into the kind of power forward any NHL team would covet.

Stewart was the Avalanche's first-round draft pick (18th overall) three months ago and spent the past three days at rookie camp at the South Suburban Family Sports Center getting acclimated to the altitude and bonding with the organization's other prospects.

He'll be on the ice again Friday when the entire team begins training camp sessions.

"I've seen Joe Sakic around the dressing room, but I haven't said too much, just hi and bye," Stewart said Tuesday. "I want to see him and guys like Jose Theodore and Milan Hejduk on the ice. It should be a treat. You're used to seeing them on TV. When you see them in person, you're kind of star-struck."

Stewart, a 6-foot-1 right wing, wasn't convinced he wanted to play hockey for a living when he was a sophomore at West Hill High School in Scarborough, Ontario, so he temporarily gave up the sport to concentrate on football.

"I have good hands and I could move pretty good for a big guy," he said.

At 260 pounds, Stewart was an overpowering presence, and he scored 10 touchdowns to help his team advance to its league championship game.

But the year away from hockey made him realize that he'd much rather fire pucks into nets than catch footballs in end zones.

"I thought if I took football seriously maybe something could be worked out, but I wanted to come to the NHL," Stewart said. "I got my priorities straight and came back to hockey. I really missed the game. Now I'm a hockey player, and that's the way it's going to be forever."

Stewart is coming off a second season with the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League.

After collecting 37 goals, 50 assists and 113 penalty minutes in 62 games, the Toronto-born Stewart was rated the eighth best North American skater by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau and the 14th best player available by The Hockey News.

"I like to get the ugly goals and hang around the front of the net," he said. "I like to drive hard to the net, get my ugly goals, finish my checks and battle in the corners."

But Stewart, whose brother Anthony played in 10 games for the Florida Panthers last season, didn't show well at the NHL Combine in Toronto; several scouts thought he was overweight and his stock dropped.

"I was ranked to possibly go top 10 or top 15," he said. "I talked to Colorado before the draft and they didn't think I was going to be around, but they wanted to have me and I wanted to be here. I grew up watching guys like Joe Sakic, so it was like a dream come true."

Stewart, who now weighs 227 pounds, is eager to show the Avalanche that it didn't make a mistake on draft day.

"I did a lot of running - running in the heat - did a lot of cardio workouts and ate right," he said. "There were some long days, but it was worth it."

Stewart can be a handful around the net and he skates pretty well for a player his size, but he doesn't turn 19 until next month so his chances of sticking with the Avalanche this season are probably remote.

"I want to stay as long as possible, hopefully crack the lineup," he said. "If not, my team back in Kingston should be competitive this year, so I'm looking forward to that, too."
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