Defenceman Rob Stewart enjoyed an illustrious 17-year playing career in Britain, winning silverware four times in the old Superleague with Bracknell Bees and Belfast Giants. He was a founding member of the Giants in 2000.
Anglo-Canadian Stewart had an unpromising start to his career on this side of the Atlantic. After hearing good things about British ice hockey from his brother Keith, who spent season 1989-90 with Nottingham Panthers, he broke off his studies in Canada to join the then Basingstoke Beavers.
He was released after two games. The same misfortune befell him at Solihull Barons. Instead, he joined Romford Raiders in 1990-91 to fill in for an injured player and “pick up a couple of weeks’ pay”. This time, the 195lbs rushing defender was asked to stay and he rewarded them by scoring 124 points (47 goals) in 49 games and gaining an All-Star selection in the Raiders’ finest season to date.
He spent four years with the east London squad, taking over as coach in the autumn of 1993. In an era when clubs were restricted to three imported players, he was often the top scoring defenceman in Division One of the British League, and the club’s sole overseas blueliner. He ran hockey schools in Romford for several summers.
After a year as captain of Telford Tigers, he moved in 1995-96 to the ambitious John Nike-owned Bracknell Bees and remained there for five seasons, four of them in the Superleague, which they won in 1999-2000.
Superleague raised standards and increased salaries but despite the huge influx of North American talent, Stewart was still one of the league’s top defencemen.
Bees’ coach Dave Whistle was a good friend from the pair’s days together in Romford and Telford, and when ‘Whis’ took up the post of coach to Belfast Giants in the autumn of 2000, Rob agreed to be his assistant as well as play in the club’s inaugural campaign. He also took on the vital task of creating the club’s junior development programme.
In only the Giants’ second season, ‘Stewie’ won his second Superleague title, and earned his third All-Star first team rating (fourth in all). He and the Giants added the Play-off Championship in 2002-03, the last year of the Superleague. Rob was the league’s Iron Man, the only player never to have missed a game in 286 consecutive appearances.
In the summer of 2003 when he took over as head coach, it was a difficult time financially for the Giants. His dedication was such that at one point he used his own credit card to help keep the club afloat.
After his fellow Hall of Famer Jim Gillespie came to the rescue, Giants recovered and won the Elite League in 2005-06 with Stewart as player-coach.
He made an emotional return to Romford in September 2006 after a 12-year absence, playing a season for the Raiders in the English Premier League, and coaching the team the following winter. But he was back on Belfast’s coaching staff for the Giants’ second Play-off Championship in 2009-10.
At the time of his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2012, he had been a part of every one of the Giants’ seven trophy wins, three as player and four as coach. The mild-mannered man now lives in Northern Ireland and continues to put his coaching talents to good use with the Elite League team and with their junior development programme.
Rob Stewart was born in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada on 5 February 1966. His no. 16 Giants’ jersey was retired at his testimonial game in 2013 and now hangs in the rafters of Belfast’s SSE Arena.