This is the third installment of an occasional series of blog posts on the Hamburg Freezers hockey team in Germany. See a previous post, Hockey You Don’t Know, for Part 1, and Chasing Pucks and Dreams in Germany for Part 2.
New Freezers Update: Newly acquired Toronto goalie J.S. Giguere is a former Hamburg Freezer. Giguere played six games (.925 save percentage, 2.39 goals against average) for the Freezers during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Freezers Update: I’m going to keep you up to speed on the Freezers’ progress for the rest of their season. Hamburg still stands in 13th place in the elite 15-team Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). They play a game later today (Sunday, Jan. 31) against one of the top teams in the league, the DEG Metro Stars of Dusseldorf. But there’s bad news for the Freezers — Canadian Paul Manning, a top defenseman, broke bones in his foot during practice a few days ago and on Thursday forward Kimmo Kuhta suddenly announced he was returning immediately to his native Finland for personal reasons. Stay tuned.
Fresh Update: Freezers lost 3-2 to the DEG Metro Stars, but the score could have been much more lopsided if not for the splendid goalkeeping of young American Bobby Goepfert.
Last time out I told you about the strange and erratic journey of current Freezers coach Paul Gardner from Fort Erie through the AHL and NHL (as both player and coach) to Russia and Belarus before landing on billionaire Philip Anschutz’s sadsack Freezers team in the northern German city of Hamburg.
Gardner’s journey is nothing compared to the wild (some might say scary) ride of the guy Gardner replaced — Toronto-born Bill Stewart.
To give you some sense of where we’re going, I’ll tell you two facts about Stewart:
1. His nickname while coach of the Hamburg Freezers was “Kill Bill.”
2. While coaching another team in the DEL previously, Stewart faked a fainting spell at the bench to give one of his star players time to get his skates sharpened during a playoff game.
As a player, Stewart was a tall (for the day), rangy defenseman picked 68th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1977 amateur draft.
He played 13 games with the Sabres in 1977-78, but spent most of the season with the Sabres AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.
Stewart played most of the 1978-79 season with Buffalo, but the next year he was back in the minors.
Thereafter it was an up-down career between NHL and AHL teams, first with St. Louis for a couple of years and then with Toronto (signed as a free agent in ’83) for a few more.
Bill Stewart as a Leaf
He was valued as a player for his feistiness (I would say “mean streak,” but that’s only based on hearsay) yet he was never able to stick with one team for long.
Stewart signed as a free agent with the Minnesota North Stars in 1985. He played only eight games with the big club before spending the rest of the 1985-86 season with the AHL Springfield Indians.
And that was the end of Stewart’s NHL/AHL career — but not his pro career.
Following the 1985-86 season in North America, Stewart signed with SG Brunico and extended his playing career for another nine years on various teams in Italy before retiring in 1995.
Believe it or not, Stewart even managed to play on Italy’s national hockey team at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics in Albertville and Lillehammer. I’m not sure how he qualified, but there’s a lot about Bill Stewart that’s hard to explain.
Like how — only three years after hitting the end of the line as a hockey player in some Italian backwater — he became head coach of the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Well, you’ve got to remember this was the Islanders’ bleakest period, during the reign of “Mad Mike” Milbury, when four different ownership groups (including fraudster John Spanno) controlled the franchise in as many years.
Stewart was brought in as a mid-season replacement during an austerity phase and his chief attribute was his cheapness. Before the Islanders gig, Stewart had coached one season in the Colonial Hockey League (Muskegon Fury, 1995-96), one season in the OHL (Oshawa Generals, 1996-97) and one in the AHL (Saint John Flames, 1997-98).
Stewart took the Flames to the AHL final (where they lost), which is probably why he got the Islanders job. But the terrible Isles finished out of the playoffs and Stewart was gone at the end of the season.
Gone. Gone to his greatest infamy the next season as head coach of the OHL Barrie Colts.
Ah, the 1999-2000 Barrie Colts. The mere mention of that team still makes OHL Commissioner David Branch go into convulsions.
Those Colts were probably the craziest, out-of-control team in junior hockey history and Stewart was the architect of that team.
The core of the 1999-2000 team was the Brampton Boys — a foursome of young players controlled by notorious coach/agent David Frost: Sheldon Keefe, Ryan Barnes, Shawn Cation and … drumroll, please … Mike Jefferson (who later changed his name to Mike Danton, played in the NHL and spent time in U.S. and Canadian prisons for plotting to kill someone — maybe Frost, maybe his estranged father — before launching his new persona as a university hockey player).
The four were playing for the St. Mike’s Majors when Stewart engineered a trade for them, a trade that was believed to have had much to do with St. Mike’s wanting to cut ties with David Frost.
The rest is history, as they say.
During that season, Barnes was charged with assault for an on-ice stick-swinging incident, three other Colts players were charged with sexual assault (charges later dropped), and Stewart himself was banned from entering the United States for trying — twice — to smuggle a Ukrainian player without proper papers across the border in the baggage compartment of the team bus.
Despite the turmoil — or maybe because of it — the Colts won the OHL championship that season and headed off to Halifax for the Canadian junior championship, the Memorial Cup.
Playing against the Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), the Kootenay Ice (WHL) and host Halifax Mooseheads, the Colts went completely off the tracks.
The Brampton Boys and a few other players stalked out of a pre-tournament banquet when OHL head Branch — who had been in constant disciplinary dealings with the Colts — was about to make a speech.
Things got worse during the Colts’ opening game the next day: Team captain Keefe refused to shake Branch’s hand on-ice, many of the Barrie players ignored the national anthem, and coach Stewart himself went over the boards to chase the Mooseheads’ mascot across the ice after it/he made disparaging gestures toward the Barrie bench. The team got a two-minute bench penalty for that one. The Colts also lost the game.
The next day things got even worse when the team was hit with a $5,000 fine for the previous day’s outrages.
The Colts actually made it to the Cup final against Rimouski, but then things got really bad, if you can believe it.
Mike Jefferson/Danton had developed a real hatred for Rimouski’s star player Brad Richards and threatened publicly to do him grave physical harm.
Jefferson/Danton attacked Richards repeatedly during the final game and refused to shake his hand at the end of it.
Nevertheless, Rimouski won and Richards was named MVP.
Stewart, Keefe and Jefferson/Danton ran — literally ran, I am told — from the arena at the end of the game, refusing to answer any questions.
And that was the end of Bill Stewart’s North American coaching career (so far, anyway). It’s pretty hard to get a decent coaching job in Canada if you’re not allowed to enter the U.S.
So it was back to Europe for Stewart, this time to Germany’s DEL where he hooked up with Adler Mannheim (Mannheim Eagles) for the 2000-01 season.
It was during that season when Stewart faked a faint in the DEL finals to give Mannheim star Jan Alston time to get his skates sharpened.
Stewart lasted with Mannheim until the middle of the 2003-04 season, when he switched over to the Krefeld Pinguine for the rest of the season.
Stewart was out of hockey in Germany for the next couple of years before the Hamburg Freezers brought him onboard as a midseason replacement in the 2006-07 season.
NOTE: The above paragraph originally said Stewart was “out of hockey (at least as a head coach)” but Ralf Schmitt set me straight. I’ll add a bit of Ralf’s e-mail at the end of the blog post.
Stewart lasted in Hamburg until he wore out his welcome in 2008.
Paul Gardner became head coach of the Freezers at the start of the 2008-09 season and Stewart is now head coach of the Kolner Haie (Cologne Sharks).
The Sharks are currently tied for eighth place in the DEL and probably headed for the playoffs. Hamburg, as I mentioned earlier, is 13th and a long shot to grab the 10th and last playoff spot.
I asked Ralf Schmitt, a sports reporter in Hamburg with the national German newspaper Bild, for his impression of Bill Stewart during his time with the Freezers.
Here’s Ralf’s reply:
“Craziest coach in the world, I tell you!!!”
Well, there are all kinds of crazy but somehow or other Stewart has managed to make a living from hockey for more than three decades. At least part of his craziness has got to be crazy like a fox.
Ralf tells me he’ll send along some stories from Bill Stewart’s Hamburg days and I’ll pass them on to you at a later date.
Here’s part of an e-mail Ralf sent after I first posted this piece on Bill Stewart. I’ll give you a taste now and run some more Ralf’s insights later. It’s interesting stuff:
In fact Bill was not out of coaching, when he came to Hamburg. He worked in Austria! And came to the Freezers in a typical Stewi-way! Despite he had a contract he left his Austrian club Linz overnight. The people in Linz were not too happy as you might imagine …
When he arrived here we were all surprised, that he had become more quiet. “Still Bill” in German. The players liked his excellent way to prepare them for a game. And Stewi is a brilliant “coach” – in terms of motivation. Yes, he is crazy. But I really liked this guy. From a writer’s perspective there was always something new and surprising. And he works really professionally. That is much better than a coach who always tells you, “We have to work hard,” “We have to stick to our system” etc. To sum it up: Bill was my favourite coach here in the seven years that I’ve been working with the team …
I write a weekly column for the torontonews24.com website and my current subject is How To Fix The Senate — quickly, cleanly and in a way that would make all Canadians proud.
Here’s the link if you’d like to read it.