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Real team spirit

For a man who maintains he was “thrown into” the general manager position with the Elmira Sugar Kings four years ago, it’s safe to say that Keith Stewart has done a remarkable job at the helm of the team. Earlier this season, however, Stewart came to the decision that it was time to step down and give someone else a crack at the job.
“I think I’ve done my time, and now it’s time for someone else to step in,” he said with a smile.

In his five years with the team, however, Stewart has enjoyed tremendous success. He joined the Kings in 2005 as a scout, and then moved up to the general manager position the next season, taking over from Graham Snyder.

“I was leery about it at first, but the way things turned out, I guess I did alright,” he laughed. Stewart says he had no experience as a scout or in managing a team prior to joining the Kings, but has spent most of his life at the rink either as a player or a coach.

And to say his time as GM turned out “alright” would be an understatement.

The Kings were Cherrey Cup finalists in his first season as general manager in 2007, but in 2008 the team had what is probably their best season under Stewart, finishing first in the league standings and winning the Cherrey Cup to advance to the Sutherland Cup finals, where they lost to Tecumseh Chiefs in six games.

ON THE MOVE One of the biggest changes in Stewart’s tenure was a move to new digs at the Woolwich Memorial Centre, which provide a more inviting home for the team.

That year the team was also named the winner of the leagues administration award, and Geoff Haddaway took home coach-of-the year honours.

The following season the team lost in the first round of the playoffs in six games, and last year the Kings were eliminated by the eventual Cherrey Cup champions, the Brantford Golden Eagles, in six games in the league semi-finals.

This year the Kings finished second overall – three points behind conference-leading Guelph – and appear poised to make another strong run at the league title.

Of all the memories he has made as the GM, it is the Cherrey Cup victory that really stands out for him.

“There is no other feeling in the world like that. It was unbelievable, just the people in the community and how they supported us. I think that was the big one,” he said.

Yet the job of managing a Junior B hockey club certainly doesn’t end when the season does, and Stewart will be the first to tell you that. On average, the job adds another 25 hours of work per week to his schedule, on top of his regular job working for North Dumfries Township at the Ayr arena. There are rookie camps to arrange, players to scout and recruit, and parents to meet.

“Luckily, I’ve got a boss that lets me take a lot of night shifts off, because it is a 12-month a year job,” he said of the GM’s post.

He also has enormous praise and gratitude for the work of the countless volunteers who help the Kings throughout the season, whether it’s the club executive and directors, or the booster club that feeds the team each game day; without them, the team wouldn’t have enjoyed the success it has, he noted.

Perhaps at the top of his list of people to thank, however, would be his wife Cindy. Throughout three decades of marriage, she has constantly supported him and always been there to help whenever she could – particularly when the job required him to be on the road five days of the week scouting players and watching games, Stewart explained.

“In 30 years since we were married, she’s been a hockey wife. She’s helped out at events, she sang the national anthem, she’s cut oranges, she helped paint the dressing room when we moved, sewn on name bars if I’ve made a trade, so without her and having her support I could have never done it.”

Kings coach Geoff Haddaway – who was hired by Stewart four years ago – also has nothing but praise for the outgoing GM.

“Around here we put our minds together when we have to come up with a decision, and that includes tough decisions, to see what is ultimately best of the Elmira Sugar Kings,” said Haddaway. “Most of the time we’re on the same page, and if not it comes down to what he decides and at the end of the day he knows I’ve got his back and he’s got mine, so I think that’s generally what makes him successful.”

As of now, Stewart isn’t sure of what his future involvement will be with the team. He says that he would like to remain with the team, either as a director of hockey operations or as a scout, but hasn’t had time to figure that much out. With the team fighting for a playoff position, he has been a little preoccupied planning for what he hopes will be a long postseason run this spring.

“I have a real good feeling (about the playoffs). We get the support from the fans, and it’s a whole new season. Any of the eight teams can win a series at any time, but I think we’re going to have a real good run.”

In a season which saw the team celebrate its 40th anniversary, as well as hold its successful Support the Troops game on Jan. 30 that raised more than $4,200 for charity, and after all of the work and sleepless nights that Stewart has put into building the best team possible, there could be no greater gift for the team to give its outgoing GM than a return to the Cherrey Cup finals, and possibly even the Sutherland Cup.

“I hope two months from now I’m planning a parade, and it’s not the Christmas parade,” he laughed.

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