Of all the opportunities Liam Stewart has had, the one he grabbed and held on to with an unmistakable passion is hockey.
“The atmosphere around the room, stepping on the ice every day, I just love it,” the Spokane Chiefs’ rookie forward said. “I love scoring. I love the aggressiveness of it. It’s just a lot of fun. And it’s different from what both my parents did.”
According to Stewart, his dad is a soccer guy and his mom is a rugby fan.
That would be rock music icon Rod Stewart, who is from England, and supermodel Rachel Hunter, who is from New Zealand. They divorced in 2006.
“I’m privileged to have parents like that,” their son said. “I’ve traveled the world, (but) I never thought of myself different than anyone in the room. I’ve never been too cocky about it, or talked about it.”
At a very young age he strived to be an individual.
“I’ve always wanted to carve my own path,” said Stewart, who was born in London. “I didn’t want to be Rod Stewart’s son who really does nothing. … I wanted to do my own thing, get out of California, meet new people, like the boys.”
“In the room” and “the boys” are so connected to hockey, it’s hard to imagine that Stewart grew up in Southern California, or that he considers himself “a New Zealand kind of guy.” Laid-back is in sharp contrast to his presence on the ice.
“He’s got upside,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “He’s got good size, skates real well, he’s an intelligent player. He’s a committed athlete. That’s a key word, he’s an athlete.”
The attitude of the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder, who just turned 17 last month, also impressed the demanding coach.
“He’s a great teammate, he’s a good friend. He’s just another one of the guys,” Nachbaur said. “That speaks volumes of who he is. He’s a down-to-earth young man. You look at his background, who his mum and dad are, he’s obviously very proud of that, but he’s here to be his own man, his own person.”
Despite the California roots, Stewart’s hockey flame was lit on the other side of the country.
“When I was like 3 or 4, I was in New York for one of my dad’s shows and I went to a Rangers game,” he said. “From then on I told my mom I wanted to do that. The next day I was skating, not playing hockey, just free skating. That’s how it started.”
That isn’t quite the same scenario his mother recounted, but older sister Renee was into skating.
“Virtually from 5 until now, he’s been playing hockey,” Hunter said. “I think it’s an incredible sport. It’s an amazing family environment for a child to grow up in.”
She altered her schedule for all the demands on a hockey parent and has seen her son flourish.
“As a parent, if your kid has a smile on their face and they’re happy, that’s all I want for my kid,” she said.
Stewart played his way up the ladder and earned an invitation to a WHL identification camp.
Although he wasn’t selected in the Bantam draft, he was asked to attend the Chiefs’ camp, where he promptly turned heads by winning the 1½-mile run.
“That was very impressive,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “His fitness test was unbelievable, which tells you there’s an athlete there or a guy who’s worked very hard.”
With a strong camp as a 15-year-old, he was put on Spokane’s 50-player list. When he returned last fall, however, he had a minor injury, so he was sent back to Junior Kings, where he had an outstanding season.
“When they said I was a year away, I put a lot of work in, hoping to make the team,” said Stewart, who was recently cleared to play for the Great Britain National Program. “Luckily, I did. … The WHL just sounded a lot better, a better route for me to go, more games played than the college game.”
Stewart considers himself a defense-first forward like his confidant, Los Angeles Kings forward Jarrett Stoll, who dated Hunter. In Stewart’s first game, he was on the penalty kill unit and got plenty of ice time as the third-line center. He was injured by illegal hit in the second game and missed the next four.
Still, that was enough to know he was in the right place.
“I love it,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it this far. You get what you put in, all the hard work.”
“No question he can be a good junior,” Speltz said. “The question is, can he keep taking the steps and be a pro. The commitment he’s shown so far, everything he’s done, he wants to be a player.”
His mother, who was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue twice and more recently on “Dancing with the Stars,” just wants to be a hockey mom.
“Like any hockey mom from western Canada … very committed,” Speltz said. “A very classy lady in all the dealings we’ve had.”
“She’s a great hockey mom, yeah, but I don’t think she really knows the game,” Liam said. “She knows a few rules, that’s about it.”
Hunter didn’t hesitate to follow her son to Spokane and has rented with an open-end lease.
“I love it up there,” she said. “I want to be a part of it as much as I can. … to see him reaching his goal and his dream. Seeing all the kids, because it’s such a team sport … is what’s really impressive and cool. You do what you can with your kids. Liam’s as happy as anything up there.”
Though he has tunnel vision for hockey, Stewart is going to be in the shadow of his famous parents for a long time. He’s prepared.
“I’ve had it for pretty much my whole life,” he said. “I just kind of blank that stuff out. When I was younger it bothered me. … I just say I’m not different than you are.
“They gave me advice, but there’s nothing they can really do about it. It’s on me.”