MJHL-WHL Prospect Watch – Sam Stewart, Neepawa Natives

Note to our fans: The MJHL will be highlighting our players throughout the season that are currently signed in the Western Hockey League.  

“We feel that the MJHL gives younger players a great opportunity to further develop as a player and person in a very professional and competitive environment,” said Kevin Saurette, Director of Operations, MJHL.

“These players are able to play important minutes against older competition which translates into the players being better prepared for when they make that next step to Major Junior Hockey.”

The inaugural WHL Prospect Watch features Neepawa Natives 16-year-old defenseman Sam Stewart.

Sam Stewart admits it was the toughest decision of his still very young life. At 16, he had to make a decision that would have significant consequences well into the future.

Play NCAA college hockey? Or sign on with a Western Hockey League team? Flip a coin: tails it’s the Dub. Heads its college. If it were only that simple.

“I was very, very nervous,” admits the talented Neepawa Natives’ defenseman. “It (the decision) was pretty much all I could focus on for a couple of weeks. I was lucky that I could talk to some very good people.”

In the end, Stewart signed a WHL card with Tri-City Americans. That decision would then slam the door on the NCAA hockey route.

“I spoke to my assistant coach (Ryan Menei), my billet (Matt Lowry), who both had similar decisions to make when they were younger. They could relate to me. We had very good talks. It was a tough decision, but it’s one I feel confident making.”

Many players find themselves in similar situations as Stewart. The decision does not come without significant mental stress. In the end, Stewart came away feeling pretty good. But, then he picked up the phone and notified the college team which was interested in him.

“It was a tough call,” remembers Stewart. “Honestly, I had gone back and forth a couple of times on my decision. I spoke to them (college coach) and explained my decision. I  know they’ve heard it before from other players.”

Stewart is considered a blue-chip prospect: he’s both athletically gifted and academically strong. “I get 90s in school,” said Stewart, who is 6-foot, 180-pounds.

In the end, the Western Hockey League won out. “Tri-City really showed a lot of interest in me,” said Stewart.

“Their GM (Bob Torry) flew into Winnipeg to watch me during our Showcase. That means a lot. I looked at everything when I made my decision. The length of the schedule, daily practices, the competition level. It made sense for me to go the WHL route.”

Stewart, who hails from Winnipeg, also credits his time in the MJHL for helping him prepare for the next step in his hockey career. Moving to Neepawa was a major adjustment for the city kid. But, like thousands of others before him, leaving home at a young age comes with the hockey adventure.

“The MJHL is a very good league,” he said. “There’s a lot of skill here. It was definitely an adjustment for me, moving from midget to Junior A. Guys are faster. Stronger. Older.”

And the Natives couldn’t be happier for Stewart.

“Sam is a skilled defenseman that plays older than his age,” said Natives’ GM Myles Cathcart.  “He sees the ice extremely well, plays in all situations and is a student of the game.”

“Sam was able to develop this season so that he is ready to play at the next level.  He is a quality young man off the ice and exhibits a professional attitude towards the game of hockey.”

In the meantime, Stewart is focused on a number of short-term goals: helping Neepawa make the playoffs, continuing to improve his game and join the Americans when his MJHL season comes to an end.

“I feel so relieved that I’ve made my decision. Now I can focus on other things which can help me improve. I’m also having fun: and that means a lot too.”

Note: A full list of the MJHL (1999, 2000) players currently signed in the Western Hockey League is available here.