Courtesy of Pam Shebest
KALAMAZOO, MI — At six months old, Mackenze Stewart was diagnosed with significant hearing issues.
Between the ages of 2 and 11, he had several surgeries and treatments, keeping him out of organized sports.
But once he laced up the skates and stepped on the ice at age 12, there was no looking back for the Kalamazoo Wings defenseman.
Stewart does not remember a lot about those earliest years as a child, but his mother, Colleen Stewart, remembers them very well.
“The original diagnosis was cystic fibrosis,” she said. “I said to (the doctors) that he’s a 12- or 16-pound baby boy and he doesn’t look like someone who has cystic fibrosis.
“As a parent, there’s a lot of heartache in advocating for your child, especially when doctors can’t figure things out.”
Mackenze Stewart remembers doing a lot of therapy and was in and out of the hospital a minimum of twice a week before he started school.
“At two years old, they figured out what was wrong and by 5 or 6 they figured out the rest,” his mom said.
She added that the hearing issues were due to three things: a very rare form of asthma (which led to the original cystic fibrosis diagnosis), biomechanical issues where his entire upper palate had to be restructured and scar tissue from all the surgeries.
“He didn’t develop his language as other children did but he and his older sister, Sophie, had their own way to communicate,” his mom said.
His mother came from a musical family and she encouraged both children to learn an instrument. Sophie chose the piano and Mackenze the guitar.
“That was really my escape when I was a kid,” said Stewart, who started playing when he was 6. “I still play. I do it as a hobby. I didn’t get a chance to bring my guitars down this year so I’ve been without ’em. I kinda miss ’em.”
Said his mother: “One thing he realized was that he could carry a tune. He could mimic a melody.
“He was working very, very hard on speech therapy and the most eloquent thing I ever heard him say about his music was that the guitar spoke for him.”
His most recent purchase was a Gibson electric guitar.
“They’re awesome guitars so I’ve been doing a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers and things like that,” he said. “My favorite all-time guitarist has to be John Mayer.”
A RUDE AWAKENING
When he first started school, Stewart realized he was different from other kids, his mother said. Classmates made fun of the way he talked.
“He didn’t approach life as with a disability,” she said. “You raise your kids thinking everything they want to achieve is reachable.”
Stewart’s final surgery was when he was in fifth grade and the next year he began his hockey adventure — at age 12.
Although he was not sure about playing physical sports, he decided to give it a try.
“When I first started out, I played at the lowest level in peewee and I was really good,” he said. “I scored a lot of goals.
“I was a bigger kid and I think I just had natural athleticism around me. Being Canadian, it wasn’t my first time on skates.”
He rose quickly through the hockey ranks and by age 17 he decided on hockey as a career.
“I’ve always been kind of addicted to the game, you might say,” he said. “Working hard was fun to me because I just kept getting better and better.
“I think once I played my first year in WHL (Western Hockey League), I was like, ‘Wow. This is what I would really love to do.’”
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound blueliner did not expect to get drafted by an NHL team, so when his agent called to congratulate him, “I thought he was messing around with me,” Stewart said.
“Then I got a call from Vancouver and it was just a complete blur that day. It was awesome. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
The Canucks took Stewart in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and assigned him to the ECHL Alaska Aces last year once his Junior career was over.
Stewart actually played six games with the K-Wings in 2015-16 and four with the AHL Utica Comets before being sent to the WHL Tri-City Americans for 36 games.
“Stewie’s a guy who was here a couple years ago and Vancouver had the project of trying to make him a forward and I think they realized that was a mistake,” K-Wings coach Nick Bootland said.
“They put him back at defense and he went to Junior hockey and then came back and this is basically his second year pro.”
When the Aces folded at the end of last season, Vancouver affiliated with the K-Wings and assigned Stewart to Kalamazoo.
“(The K-Wings) are a little different (from the Aces) because guys have been here for a number of years,” Stewart said. “Everybody knows each other so there’s a good base to grow on.
“There’s good leadership in the room. Willie’s (Ben Wilson) a great captain, Tayles (Justin Taylor) has been here for a long time, (Joel) Martin is a legend here.
”I think we’re really good and we’re going to have a good stretch here at the last end.
HEARING AT 80-85 PERCENT
With 80 to 85 percent hearing now, the 22-year-old has no problems on or off the ice.
In 30 games, Stewart has four goals and seven assists for eleven points along with a plus-7 rating.
His performance earned him a call-up to the AHL Utica Comets where he played just two games before coming back to Kalamazoo.
“You have to take the opportunities as they come and not think too much about it and realize when it comes to be your time to (play), that’s your opportunity.” Stewart said. “Over time you learn that you can only control what you can control.
“It’s good to get called up. It’s great and I’m happy to be back and playing. I think going up helped my confidence, speed and pace. Willie’s (Ben Wilson) a really good D partner and we have some good chemistry out there.”
Said Bootland: “I don’t know if it was the call-up that gave him more confidence, but we challenged him as a coaching staff when he came back. After that first game he played really well. It was like he really wanted to show ‘Hey, I’m here, I want to be here, I want to help, I want to get better.’
“He has that in him every day. Then we said, that’s what we want, that’s what we need, that’s the standard. That’s where you need to be constantly and he’s really run with that, playing with Ben Wilson.”
Although he has known Stewart for a couple years, his defensive partner did not know about Stewart’s hearing issues.
“I heard a rumor from his roommate, (Kyle) Blaney,” Wilson said. “Sometimes it looks like he doesn’t hear me but I ‘m always talking to him and he’s talking to me. I think we have a good partnership.”
Talking about missing what a teammate might say on the ice, Stewart gets a sly smile before answering, “If I did, I wouldn’t know because I can’t hear it.”
Blaney did not know Stewart before they became roommates and did not know about his hearing loss. In fact, Bootland did not know about it until last Sunday when he was being interviewed about Stewart.
“Obviously he’s adapted well,” Blaney said. “He’s handled it very well.
“Now it’s almost a joke around the apartment: When we go back and forth, he just says, ‘Oh, sorry man, I can’t hear.’ When he doesn’t want to respond to something he uses that against me and makes me feel bad about it,” he added, laughing.
“I’m sure there are a lot of guys on the team who don’t know. That’s just more of a tribute to him and his family as far as helping him overcome that obstacle and him personally overcoming that obstacle.”