Anthony Stewart's struggle to overcome poverty

When Anthony Stewart was five years old, he would walk with his father from the dingy Scarborough motel where they lived to the hockey rink. It would take an hour – but the family couldn’t afford a car or even busfare.

Upon arrival at the arena on that first day, the coach told him that he wasn’t allowed to play – his helmet did not have a cage to protect his face. “We had to walk home and it took two weeks for my Dad to find the money to buy a cage,” he told the Original Hockey Hall of Fame.

His father worked only occasionally as a day laborer and the family was always short of money. There was never enough food at the family home, with Anthony, his brother Chris and five sisters squeezed into a tiny space with parents Norman and Sue. Norman, who grew up on a farm in Jamaica, immigrated to Montreal, arriving just in time for a golden era that saw the Canadiens win six Stanley Cups in the 1970s. Norman had never put on skates in his entire life, but he loved Guy Lafleur and the Habs.

One day, a snowstorm raged as Norman and Anthony were making their way down the road to practice. A car pulled over and Bob and Shirley Ziemendorf, who also had kids heading to the rink, offered them a ride.

Stewart credits that single act of kindness for kickstarting his professional hockey career. He would go on to play with the Kingston Frontenacs and then win a gold medal at the World Juniors in 2005, skating with future greats like Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron. He played 262 NHL games with Florida, Atlanta and Carolina, notching 71 points.

After retiring, he has been busy paying it all back.

He calls the Ziemendorfs his “guardian angels,” shuddering to think how his life – and that of his more troubled brother Chris – might have ended up without them. “The Ziemendorfs were instrumental in my success,” he says.

“They weren’t rich by any means but they understood when people were struggling and they wanted to help,” Stewart recalls. The Ziemendorfs would regularly drive him to and from practices and games; they would stop at a local Subway shop so Anthony wouldn’t go hungry; and they would help out by buying him equipment on occasion.

At the age of 9, the Stewart family’s financial struggles were so tough that Anthony moved in with the Ziemendorfs for two years. This allowed his hockey skills to flourish and he drew the attention of OHL scouts.

The Kingston Frontenacs selected Stewart at the age of 16. It was in Kingston that he met another person who would have a dramatic impact on his life – legendary coach Larry Mavety.

“He was a great influence for me,” Stewart recalls. “He really believed in me and encouraged me to become a professional hockey player. Mav was like a second father to me.”

And then there was the food. In addition to being well-fed at his Kingston billet, Stewart was always first in line when Mavety would distribute coupons for a free slice of Pizza Pizza. “He knew that things had been rough for me and always made sure that I had a couple of extra.”

In his four seasons with Kingston, he tallied 238 points, again drawing the attention of scouts. In the 2003 draft, he was selected in the first round by the Florida Panthers. He was sent back to Kingston to sharpen his skills and played his first game with the Panthers in 2005. “Unfortunately, in that first year I dislocated my wrist and really was not the same after that,” he recalls.

When he signed with Florida, he received an $800,000 signing bonus, which allowed him to dramatically change the lives of his family members. First, he spent $500,000 to buy his parents a proper home in Scarborough.

Then Anthony turned his attention to his brother Chris, also a budding young hockey player. While Anthony had a calm personality, Chris was troubled and would get into fights in the rough Scarborough neighbourhood. In his OHL draft year, he suddenly quit hockey, not wanting to place a financial burden on his family.

In its place, Chris took up football. Instead of the Stewarts having to spend thousands of dollars on hockey registration and equipment, all he needed was a pair of cleats. The school football team took care of the rest.

However, it was clear that Chris had a huge talent for hockey. So, Anthony took part of his signing bonus and told Chris that he would pay for his equipment and fees if he rejoined the sport. He helped him to get fit and lose 15 pounds.

And then he went out on a limb for Chris. “I requested a meeting with Mav and asked him to take a chance on Chris and give him a tryout.” Mavety agreed.

From that walk-on at training camp, Chris made the Frontenacs, initially as a fighter. However, he quickly proved that he had hockey skills too, scoring 87 points in his second season and being named captain. He was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in 2006. He went on to a successful NHL career, playing 668 games and collecting 322 points.

Since retiring in 2016, Anthony has focused on his work as a hockey analyst on TV and radio, as well as his charitable organization, Hockey Equality. It provides opportunities for black, indigenous, gay and female players to take part in the game. With funding from the NHL and other supporters, they have helped more than 500 youths to date.

He’s a firm believer that individuals can make a huge impact in hockey and in life. “I’ll be frank here. What’s missing right now is that families and volunteers need to step up and help those in need for the love of the game. There’s too much emphasis on winning and on their kid making the NHL.”

“The difference for me could have been as simple as someone not picking me up on the side of the road one day on the way to the rink.”

In a ceremony last year, the Kingston Frontenacs honoured both Anthony and Chris by raising their numbers to the rafters at the Leon’s Centre. It was a proud moment for both, showing how far they had come since struggling to survive in a rough neighbourhood in Scarborough.