For Rochester Americans' goalie David Leggio, asking captain Colin Stuart for advice was as easy as Eddie Vedder turning to Mike McCready for advice on a guitar lick.
Leggio, who grew up in Williamsville, N.Y., wanted his new mask to represent Buffalo. He wanted to pay homage to his favorite play-by-play broadcaster Rick Jeanerett, his city, his high school St. Joe's, his friend's father who was killed serving in Iraq and the Amerks – after all, that is his team.
“We talked about it in training camp and even in the summer,” Leggio says. “Knowing how artistic he is, he was able to give some me some ideas to give to the painter.”
“Stewie,” Rochester's 28-year-old captain, is also a painter and sculptor. He carries an easel on the road and has had his work featured in a gallery in Hayward, Wis.
“It's something I got into during high school,” Stuart says, still in his skates, leaning up against the cold concrete wall outside the Amerks' locker room. “I went to college and didn't do it for awhile. After I turned pro, with all the downtime we have in the afternoons and in between games and travel, it's something I picked back up.”
Masks aren't his specialty. He paints mostly outdoor stuff, fish and scenes from Winnie the Pooh. The fish are an ode to his favorite outdoor hobby. Eeyore, Tigger and Christopher Robin are for his newborn daughter Hayden Grace.
“Hopefully, many years down the road,” Stuart told a local TV station. “My baby girl will say, ‘Dad painted this for me before I was born’ and she can take it with her wherever she goes.”
He never expected to get attention for his art from a gallery or a TV station. Art was simply a way to find silence - here and there, a few hours of peace from thinking penalty kills, his career and fatherhood.
“Pearl Jam? Maybe we'll talk about Pearl Jam next time”
Jerry Seinfeld had a joke about the funny things that men bond over. The crux of the joke was that if two guys like sports and women, they can be friends. Leggio and Stuart bonded over sports, women – Stuart's wife and Leggio's fiance are close – and the 90s grunge band Pearl Jam.
“I'm a Pearl Jam fan, but Stewie is a Pearl Jam fanatic,” the goalie says, being very serious about the qualifier. “He's been in the Ten Club (Pearl Jam's official fan club) for like 20 years. That's a long time.”
The long-haired goalie stops mid-sentence to wish two younger players good luck. The pair's being reassigned to the Sabres' East Coast Hockey League affiliate, the Gwinett Gladiators. The two head down a small stairwell toward the players' parking lot – both with hopes of finding more playing time and earning their way back to the AHL. Leggio's seen a lot of players leave the arena with bags this year.
“Yeah, that guy's been to a lot of Pearl Jam shows,” Leggio says, snapping back to his stream of consciousness like he'd never left.
Leggio and the short-haired Stuart met in training camp in 2010. The Amerks' netminder was signed after playing in Finland, Stuart inked a one-year deal after spending several years with the Atlanta Thrashers' affiliate Chicago Wolves and Calgary's AHL club the Abbotsford Heat.
They've got more than Pearl Jam and in common. Both are introspective and personable – though Leggio is less skeptical of media. And they are both veterans still chasing a dream.
Stuart has already played 56 games in the NHL – 51 of which came with the Thrashers. They probably didn't expect him to play any. After one year playing in the highly-competitive United States Hockey League, he was drafted in the fifth round in 2001. The scouting report was pretty straight forward: Big, strong and smart – a power forward who can kill penalties and poke in a goal here and there.
Fifth-rounders are a crap shoot. Of the 32 picked in '01, only 10 others have made the NHL. Stewie's talent for strong two-way play and leadership have made his services valuable.
“When you have a lot of youth that's talented, it's about how to manage that,” head coach Ron Rolston says after practice and a long day of player meetings. “We really missed Stewie when he was injured and we were without our captain for eight weeks. That takes a toll on a team from every aspect from how you travel to how you act and your professionalism and how the locker room is between periods and being able to handle the young guys who might be bouncing off the walls. For Stewie, he's got a calm demeanor about him. He commands the respect of the room.”
You may think the captaincy is over rated. Maybe you are right, but the guys in the locker room wouldn't agree. After a late February meltdown that saw the Amerks lose back-to-back games including a 7-3 drubbing, Stuart called a players' only meeting. Veteran forward Derek Whitmore told Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that, the Amerks' captain "hammered home what makes this team go." Since, the team is 6-1 and has outscored opponents 22-13. Most importantly, they've stayed alive in the playoff race.
Pro scouts will tell you about the importance of makeup in determining which players will stick and which will end up being a waste of a draft pick. “Never underestimate the value of (a player) being a great guy,” one said.
The Sabres do not underestimate it, putting a strong focus on character when considering veteran players. Walk into the locker room and you'll see players that those in the business call “consummate professionals” such as Leggio, Drew MacIntyre, Whitmore and Paul Szczechura – this is no accident.
“Especially in the American League,” Leggio says. “Because you have so many young guys, you need a guy as a captain to lead the way, to lead by example with professionalism and work ethic. With Stewie, he's not afraid to speak his mind and when he does, guys listen.”
“I think it boils down to an individual,” Stuart says. “Everybody's different. There are certain people that need to get yelled and screamed at and there are other guys that it just takes one little quiet word or pulling them aside for two seconds. Different guys need different motivations, being able to see that is half the battle.”
His role with the Sabres' organization is to be the “consummate pro,” but Stuart is capable of being an NHL player. During his time with the Thrashers, he scored 13 points including four short-handed goals. He was a part of the 2007-08 Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves and netted his career high point total in the AHL last season with Portland with 44 in 72 games.
This year has been tough. Stuart was the team's top scorer before the knee injury that Rolston eluded to derailed his best point-per-game season as well as his most prominent front-line role and a shot at a long-term chance with the big club.
“Just like anyone else, I have hard days” Stuart says. “Maybe your play isn't where you want it to be or your point production is down, with something like that I turn a lot of the judgment and criticism on myself before anybody else does. So a great way for me to process all that is have the release of these hobbies.
“It's a way for me to be in a zone where I don't have to spend time thinking. I can be there and not have to think about anything for five hours at a time.”
“I personally have an issue with not letting kids experience everything. There's no way that a young kid should be groomed to play in the NHL, they should be playing because they are having fun with it”
Stuart grew up in Rochester, Minn., in a hockey family – though he and his siblings were free to try any sport or activity they wanted. Apparently, they all liked hockey best. His two brothers and sister all have played at the highest level. Mike, his older brother played three games for the St. Louis Blues and spent time with multiple AHL teams.
“Mike has had an incredible impact on my hockey career,” Stuart told Hockey's Future in 2003 while still in college. “Being an older brother he was a leader and a role model for me growing up. I watched him and still watch him have success at every level due to his incredible work-ethic and that’s something I have always tried to imitate.”
His younger brother Mark, a former first-round pick, is currently a defenseman with the Winnipeg Jets and Cristin, his sister, spent four years at Boston College – including being captain her senior year.
“She started off as a figure skater,” Stuart says. “She started around 10 or 12 and fell in love with it. She got on a triple-a team in high school and traveled and made a lot of sacrifices. But she had a very successful career. She was a great player.”
The Amerks' captain played with both his brothers at different times during his four years at Colorado College.
Their father Michael plays his own role in the sport as Professor of Orthopedics and Co-Director of Sports Medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the Chief Medical Officer of USA Hockey
“More than anything, I think hard work and determination. You get kicked down a lot in this profession. The percentage of guys that make it big time are few and far between. It takes something special, you have to stick out, you have to be somebody who comes to work everyday and is a professional.”
Since returning from his knee injury, Stuart has five assists in nine games. If they are going to make the post-season, the Amerks need him to keep producing. The team has seen prospect Marcus Foligno, the team's fourth-leading scorer, be recalled twice recently. They've seen injuries that have forced defenseman to the front line and Stuart to double shift.
And the team can't afford to lose a single game. The Western Conference (yes, Rochester is in the Western Conference) is crazy close. The Amerks are currently in seventh place, but just three points ahead of the 11th place team.
That's the here and now.
Long term, Stuart's influence on the organization will stretch far beyond goals and assists, penalties killed or even Calder Cups. It will be in the professionalism of the next generation of Sabres.
As for his own future, he's accepted that there's no controlling whether he makes it back to The Show. That's up to the decision makers.
“One of the biggest things is staying patient and being happy with your situation,” Stuart says. “I don't have any complaints. Obviously, the NHL is the pinnacle of my profession and I will work every day to make that happen.”
For now, he can only stay motivated, paint and listen to Pearl Jam.
“I'd buy one of his paintings and put it in my house,” Leggio says convincingly.