September 02, 2011
With the emphasis on player safety in junior hockey, it might come as a surprise that Bill Stewart is again in a position of trust in the Ontario Hockey League.
But it's happening. Stewart, who's been coached in Europe since his stint presiding over the notorious-times-a-thousand 1999-2000 Barrie Colts made his reputation radioactive, will be a bench coach with the Guelph Storm. A decade has passed since the Colts, who included Mike Danton (ne Jefferson) and the other Brampton Boys who were under the influence of rogue agent David Frost, were the most misanthropic team in modern major junior hockey annals. Perhaps that is enough water under the bridge to satisfy most concerns.
Apparently, for OHL commissioner and Canadian Hockey League president David Branch, it is; and Branch more than anyone had a lot to do with Stewart being ostracized from the OHL. From Toronto's The FAN 590 this afternoon:
"With Bill, the one thing in addition to some of the mistakes — and he calls them mistakes, he uses the word mistakes — he's made over the year is he's a brilliant tactician and a brilliant coach. I met with Bill some time ago and he gave every reason to believe that he's learned. He wants another opportunity and shouldn't we all get another opportunity? And we're hopeful that with the Guelph Storm, that will be the case. Scott Walker is the head coach there and what a great character person he was as a player and what a great teacher he is as a coach. He's embraced Bill and I'm sure they'll have a great program in Guelph and I'm sure Bill will continue to grow and someday lead a team himself."
Some might wonder what the big deal is here, since no one has to wear the hair shirt forever. Did Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick not go from serving time a U.S. federal prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring to rejoining the NFL and signing a contract for a guaranteed $40 million US? Well, it's not exactly apples to apples.
In case anyone has forgotten about those 2000 Colts, the excellent Tony Saxon provides a reminder. Most probably also believe that whatever was broadcast and written about that Barrie team was probably akin to the mere one-eighth of an iceberg that's above the waterline.
From the Guelph Mercury:
The last time Stewart, 54, had an official capacity on a players' bench on this continent was 1999-2000 when he guided the Barrie Colts to the Memorial Cup final.
While that Colts team was a success on the ice, it was widely regarded as a bit of a gong show off it.
It witnessed: an attempt to smuggle a Ukrainian player across the border in the luggage compartment of the team bus; a player charged with an on-ice assault; others with sexual assault; and, a display of unsportsmanlike behaviour at the Memorial Cup in Halifax that included the team marching out of the official banquet.
Instead of propelling him to another shot at a professional job, the year in Barrie left Stewart as something of a persona non grata in Canada's hockey world.
The one-time Kitchener Ranger confirmed he had to get permission from OHL commissioner Dave Branch to be on the Storm bench this season
True, it was a while ago. During the time Stewart was effectively exiled, Danton managed to return to competitive hockey by playing for the Saint Mary's Huskies in Canadian Interuniversity Sport after completing a U.S. federal prison sentence. He received a second chance, although his presence in CIS was not without controversy and some out-and-out media distortions. (As I remember it, most objections focused on Danton's age; it would have been better if people had just said it stemmed from his criminal record and speculation if he ever turned his back on David Frost.)
Should Stewart, as Branch says, not get the same second chance? It's not question with qualifications; he knows his stuff and was even head coach of the NHL's New York Islanders (during the Mike Milbury era, but nevertheless).
Well, there is a risk of assigning a moral equivalency between illegal acts. For instance, the Vick comparison does not wash. The quarterback is the highest-paid employee in the Philadelphia Eagles organization, but what he did not come while he was in a position of authority over other athletes and he's not in a position of authority, just one of leadership.
In the case of Stewart, while the commissioner has signed off on it, it's more than justifiable for other people to feel some discomfort. To some, showing disregard for player safety, like he did to Vladimir Chernenko, is a permanent deal-breaker. However, there's morals and ethics and then there's a junior hockey team wanting to win, and the twain do not always meet in reality.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.