Hayden Stewart faced the uncertainty for less than 24 hours.
After being released by the Dubuque Fighting Saints in January, Stewart convinced himself that he needed to view his situation as an opportunity to go somewhere else and get a fresh start.
Stewart could not have been more correct.
The 19-year-old Cornell University recruit from Rockford, Ill. soon received word that he had been picked up by the Indiana Ice, the top team in the top league in U.S. junior hockey.
“When I found out I was picked up, I was really excited,” Stewart said. “We were in first place, so I knew I was going to a good team that had a good chance to win the championship this year.
“Any time you’re picked up by a team like that, it’s really exciting.”
Stewart quickly joined a hot team and made them even hotter.
“When I first got here, the guys and the coaches did a great job of opening up, accepting me into the team and making me feel like one of the guys right away,” Stewart said. “It was a great environment. I could tell right away that we had such a great team concept.”
The Ice — and their new goalie — have reversed their fates from a year ago. Indiana, a last-place team last season, is coming off a big weekend in which Stewart earned USHL Goaltender of the Week honors for the second time in the last three weeks and the third time in the last seven weeks.
The Ice clinched the Eastern Conference title and moved into first place in the race for the Anderson Cup, the USHL’s overall regular-season title, by passing the Western Conference-leading Waterloo Black Hawks.
Stewart has been a big part of that success, and the chance to play with the Ice has been a big part of his turnaround. He was a .500 goalie with average statistics last season with the Corpus Christi Chill of the North American Hockey League.
Through 42 games with two other teams in two leagues over the two previous seasons, Stewart had never posted a shutout in junior hockey. He had one with Dubuque this season, but Stewart was let go amidst a four-game losing streak in which he had allowed six goals twice and was replaced early another time.
Now Stewart is on the longest winning streak in Indiana team history and the most successful run he has experienced as a goalie on any level of hockey.
Stewart has four shutouts, all in the last eight starts, to produce an 0.83 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage with the Ice. Counting his numbers from Dubuque, Stewart has climbed from the bottom half of the league’s goalie statistical rankings to second in shutouts, GAA and save percentage.
“I’ve never had a stretch like that in my life,” Stewart said. “It’s good to kind of see that work I’ve put in and that everybody has put in with me has paid off.
“More importantly, the team I’m on is a great team. Everything they’ve done to help me is a big reason why I’ve had success.”
Stewart had 15 saves Friday in a 5-0 win over the Muskegon Lumberjacks, a team he played with two seasons ago and briefly last season. He followed that up with 23 more saves in a 5-2 win over Muskegon on Sunday in the game that put the Ice and its league-leading defense on top of the entire league.
“The biggest thing they do is they keep a lot of the shots to the outside,” Stewart said of his team’s defensive efforts. “Then, if there’s a rebound there, they always clear it out right away.
“We’re pretty stingy in front of the net. The other team’s players don’t get a free whack at it. There’s always someone on them. They’re always tied up and covered and that makes it easier for me.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.