Saturday, December 21, 2013

Catching up with... Shawn Stuart

by Ryan Fay

Seven players from last season's Union men's hockey team are currently playing at the professional level.

Goaltender Troy Grosenick and forward Josh Jooris are in the American Hockey League. Forwards Kyle Bodie and Wayne Simpson are in the ECHL, along with defensemen Greg Coburn and Ryan Forgaard.

Then there's defenseman Shawn Stuart, the only one honing his craft overseas. Stuart is half a world away in northwestern France, where he skates with Drakkars de Caen of the French Elite League. He signed with the team on June 10 following a four-year career with the Dutchmen.

"I ended up in France through a player agent and help from the Union coaching staff," Stuart explained. "The team from France contacted the Union staff and I approached the player agent to contact the team. The team had two open defense spots. I never explored any contract options in the United States. I was interested in playing in Europe.

"I have always wanted to travel around Europe and see the cities around Europe. I just thought it would be a good experience for me. I also felt that it had more opportunities to play and make a career for myself."

The move overseas has worked out well for Stuart, who was originally supposed to be joined by Forgaard before the latter latched on in the ECHL late in the summer.

Stuart is the club's top scoring defenseman with a goal and five assists in 14 games. He scored his first professional goal in style last Saturday, lighting the lamp at 1:10 of overtime to lift Drakkars to a 4-3 win over Strasbourg.

"It was a relief to score my first professional goal, and the fact that it was a game-winning goal only made it feel better," he said.

It was a play that he won't forget anytime soon.

"I got a pass in the middle of the ice from [forward] Kevin Da Costa at the red line, skated to the blue on a three-on-three down the middle, and took a shot at the blue line," Stuart recalled. "The puck hit the defender in front of me and came back to me and the defender was flat footed. I skated past him and shot the puck blocker side low."

Despite the on-ice success, living in France has been an adjustment for the native of Calgary, Alberta. He's one of only a handful of North Americans on the roster, which is mostly comprised of French natives.

"The cultural adjustment has been quite significant coming to a place where I can't speak the first language," said Stuart. "Caen is a very French city and very few people speak English, which makes it difficult at times. But the guys on the team have been helpful and my roommates are from North America which helps as well."

France isn't as synonymous with hockey as other countries like Canada, Russia, or the United States but the following the sport has in France has surprised Stuart. Some teams in the French Elite League average as many two to three thousand fans a game.

"The hockey culture in France is much smaller than in North America, but the followers of hockey in France are very passionate about the sport and their team," he said. "Although soccer is the main sport in much of Europe, many of the locations in France have a good following and the attendance has been greater than I expected."

The 24-year-old said the game is played differently than what he experienced in his days in North America, particularly at Union, where he scored 26 points (4 goals, 22 assists) in 147 career games from 2009-2013.

"The game in Europe is less physical and more free flowing," Stuart said. "Many teams are more focused on the offensive aspects while [games] in North America, college especially, are more defensive."

Stuart said the talent level throughout the French Elite League comes down to financial resources, like any other professional league.

"The talent here in France varies from team to team," he said. "The top tier teams have more depth as they pay players more and have more money to spend while the lower income teams usually lack the depth that is seen in much of Division I college hockey. The top lines in this league are usually similar skill-wise to Division I."

Stuart still keeps tabs on Union by staying in touch with former teammates and monitoring the coverage the team receives. He credited his time with the Dutchmen for getting him to where he is in his hockey career.

"My time at Union was essential to developing not only as a player on the ice, but as a professional and person off the ice," Stuart said. "Union helped me establish a strong work ethic and desire to become better which pushed me to pursue and be able to play professional hockey."

Stuart hopes to be doing that for a while longer.

"The plan for my career is to always continue moving forward," he said. "I would like to move to better and more established leagues in Europe, but I have not closed the idea of returning the North America. I am really open to what is to come with my career and will take all opportunities into consideration."

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