When Jeff Stewart steps onto the ice at South Surrey Arena Tuesday, he’ll be aiming to prove – to the legions of scouts and coaches watching from the bleachers – that he is worthy of a college scholarship.
It is, for Stewart and the 39 other players from across the country who’ve been invited to the Canadian Junior Hockey League Prospects Game, a significant amount of pressure. But for the 17-year-old Stewart, who is in his rookie season with the Surrey Eagles, it’s something he’s used to – he’s been trying to prove he belongs at the junior ‘A’ level all season long.
“Each day I’ve just been out here working hard – in the gym and on the ice – to try and earn my spot on the roster, because I know there’s tough competition out there,” said Stewart, who played with the Valley West Hawks of the BC Major Midget League last season.
So far, the Semiahmoo Minor Hockey alum has had no trouble fitting in. Though he’s just 17, he has the size – he’s listed at six-foot-three, 170 pounds – to play against older competition, and he’s been among the Eagles’ most consistent players all season, especially lately as he’s taken a more offensive-minded role in the absence of a number of veterans who’ve left the team in recent weeks.
In 27 games, he has six goals and 14 assists, and is currently on a five-game point streak.
His performance was enough to be selected for Tuesday’s prospects game – he’s one of nine BCHL players on Team West, which will face off against a squad of eastern-based players, from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. The game features the top 40 NHL-draft eligible prospects from junior ‘A’ leagues across the country.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s game, Eagles’ coach Blaine Neufeld is sure Stewart, a centre, has already impressed any scouts who’ve seen him play this season – or will in the future.
“He’s been one of our most consistent forwards, and he’s really seized the opportunity lately with more playing time. He wants to learn, wants to get better – I think he has tremendous potential,” he said.
“He’s going to be one of our key guys moving forward.”
Though his offensive abilities are apparent – he had 48 points in 37 games last year with Valley West – Neufeld said he was originally impressed by Stewart because of his defensive abilities.
“That’s why we originally brought him in – his reliability in his own zone,” Neufeld said. “And his work in the (defensive) zone has only gotten better as the season has gone on, and he’s still got room to grow.”
Neufeld said part of Stewart’s growth this season can be attributed to team captain Paul McAvoy.
“Jeff has a real good role model in Paul. They both play the same position, and they both challenge each other to be better. They have a good relationship.”
Stewart agreed, and said he’s honed the finer points of his game simply by watching the 19-year-old McAvoy, a Kentucky native who is also in his first year in South Surrey.
“I’ve really learned a lot – learned things about how to improve on face-offs, small stuff like that. I just watch him work hard in practice, and off the ice – he’s got a great work ethic, and I just try to match it,” said Stewart, who was a first-round pick by the Kelowna Rockets in the 2013 Western Hockey League bantam draft.
Though the season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Eagles – they sit last in the BCHL standings – the team’s struggles haven’t dampened Stewart’s resolve, nor his excitement of playing for his hometown team. It hasn’t discouraged him in his quest for an NCAA scholarship, either.
“I played minor hockey at Semiahmoo, and I grew up watching the Eagles, going to all the games, so it was a great honour to finally get the chance to play for the team I grew up watching,” he said. “I just want to do whatever it takes to help our team win.”
Now more than halfway through his rookie season, Stewart also admits he feels more comfortable on the ice – whether in his team’s regular-season games, or in a high-profile showcase event like Tuesday’s prospects game.
“Before the season, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could play in this league, and play at this calibre. Now that I’ve been here a little bit, maybe getting to a scholarship has become a little bit more of a reality.
“I try to just push that stuff to the side as much as possible, but honestly, it does pop into your head once in awhile, but I like that pressure – you just have to work extra hard to prove that you’re deserving of playing at that next level.”
The CJHL Prospects Game is set for Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. Tickets are still available, and can be purchased by calling the Eagles’ office at 604-531-4625 or by going online to www.surreyeagles.ca.