Stewart brothers fought their way out

Former NHL first-round picks learned early how to be tough and resilient

Updated: July 10, 2013, 2:35 PM ET
By Brandon Sneed | Special to ESPN.com

Anthony Stewart and Chris StewartGetty ImagesAnthony Stewart, left, and Chris Stewart have shared hockey and so much more since their early years growing up in Toronto.

TORONTO -- The East Side Motel on Kingston Road in Toronto seems like the last stop for dying souls, where you're not quite completely gone but way closer than you ever planned. The place is populated with druggies and their dealers. Hookers work the Kingston Road sidewalks, and when they land clients, this is where they book a room. Its rooms are rented by the government -- a place to put families who can't afford anywhere else -- or by the hour. Faded green paint flakes from the walls like ashes. Filmmakers have used the place to show rock bottom.

This is where former NHL first-round picks Anthony and Chris Stewart grew up. Even now, several miles and so many dollars away from East Side and the things that landed them there, they still feel it every day. It haunts them, a chronic sickness. Theirs was Room 29. Their parents, their five sisters and them. A door near their room led to the hotel basement, which had a stocked kitchen. Late at night the brothers broke in and gorged. "It was a nice break from toast, syrup and ketchup," Anthony recalled. "And you know, some days, just ketchup."

Their favorite ways to get some laughs were to throw rocks at hookers and to watch them through the windows having sex, and then run away when they got caught.

They lied to classmates about living there. They climbed two 5-foot wooden fences behind the motel to walk through other neighborhoods to get to school. Climbed them like prisoners.

Hockey is easy --- it's living that's tough

For most of their lives, the only income their mother, a blue-eyed blonde named Sue Reid, brought in was a small disability check. Their father, a Jamaican immigrant named Norman Stewart, worked random odd jobs, such as installing pools or landscaping. He moved to Montreal when he was in his early 20s and tired of living with his destitute farmer parents in Jamaica.

In the '80s, then living in Toronto, he met Sue. She liked to joke with Norman that she stayed with him only "because you keep getting me pregnant." They had Anthony in 1985 and Chris in 1987, and then five girls over the next eight years.

[+] EnlargeChris Stewart
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe Colorado Avalanche chose Chris Stewart with the 18th overall pick during the 2006 NHL draft.

Sometimes the kids would complain about their hard lives, but Norman would just laugh and tell them, "Hard life here is king's life in Jamaica. Hard life here is no-ting."

Norman and Sue always blew through what little money they had, usually on the kids. "When those checks came in," Anthony said, "we'd feast like kings." He'd get sent to the store for two dozen donuts. They'd order five pizzas, three cases of soda, pick up McDonald's. Within two days, it would all be gone.

For Christmas, Norman and Sue would buy so many presents there would be no room near the tree to sit down. Every year, there was at least one big gift -- a video game console or a television or something like that -- that soon had to be returned to pay the rent. "But they always did all they could to make us happy," Anthony said.

And they did give them the one thing that ended up changing all of their lives: hockey.

Norman was in Montreal near the start of the Canadiens' greatest decade. They won the Stanley Cup in 1971, 1973, four straight times from 1976 to 1979 and then again in 1986. Norman first followed the sport because of how excited everyone else was about the team but fell in love with the game and became a die-hard fan by the time he moved to Toronto in the '80s. He still watches every game he can.

Anthony and Chris used to sit in Norman's lap or lie on his chest while he watched the games on television. They listened wide-eyed and giggling as he taught them about the sport. He got them old gear from one of their cousins. It was always too big for them, but it was all they had.

Their love for hockey was instilled young and deep. Before East Side, when Anthony was 5 years old, they lived two miles from a rink in a tiny condo that had bullet holes in the bricks. Every Saturday, Anthony and his father woke at 6 a.m., ate strawberry-flavored sugar cookies, loaded up with hockey gear and hiked to the rink. Sometimes they could convince a friendly bus driver to give them a free ride, but mostly they walked. Two dollars was too much to spend on a two-mile ride when their legs worked just fine.

Often they walked through blizzards, shuffling through snow up to their shins, careful to feel the ground before each step so they didn't trip in a hole. Anthony carried his stick and skates. His father carried a bag holding Anthony's sweater, pads, gloves and other gear. One day, Anthony's toes went from numb to feeling as if they were splitting into pieces. He started crying.

Norman turned to him. "You all right?"

Anthony nodded and kept going, but he could barely walk.

"Son?"

"My feet hurt."

Norman stopped. "Do you still want to go to hockey? Or would you rather go home?"

"I wanna go to hockey."

Norman carried Anthony the last mile on his shoulders.

At the arena, Anthony would play all day. First a league game, then hours of pickup and mini-sticks, which is basically pick-up hockey played in tennis shoes in a concrete area beyond the ice.

Chris started making the walks with them a couple of years later, and sometimes Norman carried him, too. By then, Anthony could carry the gear and thus help lighten the load.

You hear a lot of stories about kids in the Stewart brothers' situation making it as athletes in basketball and football, but rarely in hockey. There's good reason. Youth hockey is expensive -- well into five figures a year. On top of league fees, the brothers were supposed to pay per game in order to play. Norman just couldn't afford that.

"We'd get there," Anthony said, "and he'd just go, 'Oh, I'll get you the money, mon, just let 'em play today and I'll get you the money.' He has the gift of gab. To this day he probably owes people money for letting us play."

Soon enough, the brothers began to understand what excelling in sports could do for them. They were better than most of the kids, and the ones they weren't better than, they flat outworked. The people who worked the gates saw how much they cared -- and how well they played, too -- and so they started just waving them through with a wink.

"We were playing not just to win a game that day, but so we could go back for the next game," Anthony said. "We were playing for our lives."

Fighting to get out

As sports often do, hockey gave the brothers an emotional outlet. "When you grow up the way we did, in places like we did, you get really angry," Anthony said. "Kids got to get that anger out somehow."

In the brothers' neighborhoods, kids usually dealt with that anger by fighting. Anthony, though, was a peacemaker. Once, when he was 10 or so and his family moved into a new building, a young teenager there put Anthony through an initiation: He told Anthony to either fight him or hike to the top of the building and bash in the door of a lady he said was a witch -- really, nobody lived in the place. Anthony was the same size as the guy, and he knew he could take him, but if there was an option not to fight, that's the option he always took. So he made the hike.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Stewart
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAnthony Stewart, seated behind Eric Staal, was drafted by the Florida Panthers with the 25th overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft.

Chris was the badass. He fought fearlessly and rashly, often winning even when he was totally outmatched. When he was 8, he was playing mini-sticks in a parking lot when some kids from a 13-year-old team showed up and told Chris and his friends to move because they wanted to play.

"What do you mean, you want to play?" Chris recalled saying defiantly. "No. We're playing. You can go find somewhere else to play."

The 13-year-olds' ringleader shoved Chris. Chris went nuts. He slugged the guy in the stomach, threw him to the ground and kicked him until the guy crawled off. Then Chris glared at the guy's teammates. "All right, who's next?"

They ran away.

"You grow up getting into fights every day, seeing the things you do every day, you have to develop that anger," Chris said. "It gives you this edge -- it's a survival thing."

You didn't want to fight either of them. Anthony never lost, and on the rare occasions Chris lost, Anthony found whoever the culprit was and beat him up. He didn't like to fight, but he was good at it, especially when it came to protecting his brother.

Their rough roots helped in several ways. For one, perhaps more than any other team sport, anger and violence are really useful in hockey; it's the only sport in which throwing a punch can be considered a legitimate game plan.

There were more righteous uses, too: Being black guys in a white-dominated sport, they suffered their share of racism as they got older. "But in hockey, you can fight," Anthony said, "so things had a way of working themselves out pretty simply."

During one such fight, Anthony broke a kid's jaw.

Even their lack of wealth gave them an advantage they might never have had otherwise. Their strength and aggression came naturally, but they learned finesse because they had to. When their sticks broke, they couldn't afford replacements. Norman would simply duct-tape them back together and then tell the boys, "No more slap shots."

In time, help arrived, most notably from a teammate's mother, Shirley Ziemandorf. She often drove past the Stewarts as they walked to the rink and was eventually moved to give them rides. When Anthony was 9, she gave him a new home: He stayed with the family during hockey season for a couple of years so that he could play for a better league across town. While he was there, the Ziemandorfs treated him like a son, buying him everything he needed. When Anthony outgrew skates and sweaters and sticks, he sent them to Chris.

That experience led Anthony to Bob Law, who owned a local junior hockey franchise. Law had coached players who had made the NHL, and he told Anthony he believed he had that potential, too.

"That was like our light," said Norman. "It was very small, very faint, but then it was there. And that is all we needed -- to see that it was there."

It was playing for Law that really opened Anthony's eyes. At one tournament, the MVP would win a brand-new pair of skates. Anthony wanted them. He played his heart out and he won them and he began to believe hockey could give him exactly what he wanted -- a new life for him and his family.

He became one of the best youth hockey players in Toronto. At 15, Anthony made the Ontario Hockey League's Kingston Frontenacs, a junior development outfit 2 ½ hours from home. In his first season, on a team with 18- and 19-year-olds, Anthony became one of the best players and solidified himself as an NHL prospect. It seemed as if every newspaper and magazine they knew of -- and many they'd never heard of -- was writing stories about him.

He'd become a hard-knocks hero who seemed destined to break free of his wretched past, one who gave hope to all who needed it.

Anthony leaves Chris behind

There was just one huge problem.

Chris.

[+] EnlargeChris Stewart
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesChris Stewart skates during the 2008 preseason in Denver.

They'd dreamed together. They'd trained together. Prayed together. Fought on the streets and on the ice together. And now Anthony was rising while Chris was being left behind and feeling very much like the guy portrayed in all the articles -- Anthony Stewart's anonymous, poor kid brother. The ice didn't even give him the same escape it used to -- even when Chris played, when he chased his dream, he had to do it in his brother's hand-me-down skates.

It didn't help matters that whenever Anthony was home, Norman and Sue would fawn over him. Sue did all his laundry and cooked him breakfast in bed.

Chris soon tired of lugging Anthony's gear to the bus station. Spending money on hockey that he knew his family needed for other things -- food, for one -- turned his stomach. So when he was 15, Chris quit to play football -- all he needed for that was a decent pair of used cleats and a signed permission slip. No $5,000 a year.

Norman and Sue were stunned. Chris never explained himself and Norman didn't press. Friends would ask: "But doesn't he have so much potential?" Norman would nod, but then he'd say, "By that age, they have to want it more than you want it. You can't want it for them."

Chris made varsity as a tight end in his sophomore year of high school. His coaches told him he'd get some scholarship offers if he stuck with it.

But football didn't fulfill him the way hockey had. And watching his older brother live the life they'd dreamed of together hurt Chris. He felt lost. He started running around Scarborough with a bad crew, picking fights, making trouble.

He even fought Anthony once. Not just brothers-roughhousing-get-too-worked-up fighting -- real, pissed-off, trying-to-hurt-him fighting.

Anthony had come home from his second season in Kingston. Chris was on the phone. Anthony wanted to call his girlfriend, Chante. They'd met in middle school, back when Anthony was pretending he didn't live at East Side. Turns out, she figured it out pretty quickly, but that didn't stop her from wanting to be with him.

When Sue heard Chris refuse to give up the phone to Anthony, she made him hang up. Chris erupted. In a rage, he started throwing Anthony's things out of the family duplex.

"Get out!" Chris yelled. "You're not welcome here!"

Anthony said he wasn't going anywhere. Chris tackled him, and they fought until Anthony got Chris in a chokehold.

Anthony let him go, then called Chante. "I can't stay here," he said. "We're gonna kill each other."

Anthony moved in with Chante's family, then living in California, until it was time to go back to Kingston. He then had his best season with 32 goals and 38 assists. As a result, he was projected to be selected 25th overall in the first round of the 2003 NHL draft that summer. He was invited to Nashville for the event. He took his agent, his parents and, in an act of reconciliation, he invited Chris.

Not a moment too soon

Anthony's name was called exactly as predicted, at No. 25, by the Florida Panthers. He got an $800,000 signing bonus, so he gave his family members what they had always dreamed of: a safe home. He bought a $500,000 house in a nice part of Scarborough, far from the East Side Motel.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Stewart
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesAnthony Stewart played the 2011 season with the Carolina Hurricanes.

It was a beautiful home. Tan brick, rich, dark shingles, 3,500 square feet, including five bedrooms and a basement converted into an apartment. In an instant, daily life went from struggle to celebration. They had so many parties. Thirty people would sleep over some nights. Norman and Sue cooked breakfast for everyone every morning.

They feasted like kings every day.

The move came none too soon. Their old neighborhood had become deadly. When Anthony was a kid, fights were settled with fists. Now there were guns everywhere, so instead of getting black eyes, kids were getting killed.

Later that summer, Anthony gave a motivational speech to inmates at the Kingston Penitentiary. When he finished, on his way out of the room, he passed a man he knew. It was the kid who'd made him break down the door so many years earlier. He didn't have anything like hockey, so he became a murderer, his outlet for anger. He'd drive around and shoot people.

One day, he stalked Anthony's father until Norman realized who he was. When Norman ducked behind a power box, the killer called out to him.

"Yeah?" Norman replied. "What you want, mon?"

"Thought that was you! I saw Anthony on TV!"

"Yeah, mon."

"Where you all livin' now? I'll swing by sometime."

"How about I just give you my phone number."

Later that night, in the same area, there were gunshots and a police report and a family crying.

Chris finally gets it right

Chris was closer to that path than he likes to admit.

It wasn't until he saw Anthony have his name called in the draft, until he saw him walk across that stage and take that jersey, that Chris realized the truth about his anger. He didn't hate his brother. He hated not being as big or as good as his big brother. So, as their lives got better, he got back into hockey, just to remember what it felt like to have a healthy escape.

Turned out, he was damn good now that he'd finished growing.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Stewart
AP PHOTO/CP/Larry MacDougal"When you grow up the way we did, in places like we did, you get really angry," says Anthony Stewart. "Kids got to get that anger out somehow."

One day, Anthony watched Chris play pickup hockey. That changed everything. Chris was the biggest guy on the ice, overweight at 260 pounds, but he was also the fastest. He scored whenever and however he wanted.

Anthony told Chris to get back in shape and he'd get him a tryout with Kingston. He said, "You're too f---ing good to be retired."

Chris played for the Toronto Junior Canadiens in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, a notch below the Ontario Hockey League, for the 2003-04 season, registering 32 goals and 45 assists. That summer, he biked and ran the streets of Scarborough wearing trash bags. By Kingston's fall 2004 tryout, he weighed in at a cut 245.

In the first period of the tryout's first scrimmage, Chris scored a goal and got an assist. The coaches liked what he could do with a puck, but they had plenty of scorers. One of them asked Anthony, "So, can your brother fight?"

Anthony laughed. "Yeah. He can fight."

During the intermission between the first and second periods, a coach told Chris, "We need to see you fight this period. Line up beside McElrone -- you're going to fight him."

Chris won the fight. He made the team. When they took his picture his eye was black, and that's how he looked in the team program all year.

He wasn't a star. He barely played the first half of his first season. Mostly, he went in when they needed someone beaten up. But then, Anthony and a few other guys left the team to play in the World Junior Championships with Team Canada. They won silver -- losing to Team USA in the championship game -- and Anthony starred alongside Sidney Crosby. The Toronto paper ran a big feature about Anthony that included pictures of his family crammed into their living room with friends to watch him on TV.

In the ultimate display of his anonymity, Chris wasn't even identified in the photo except as "Anthony's little brother." But all that was about to change.

With Anthony gone, Chris was promoted to Kingston's third line. He finished the season with 20 points in 18 games. Having seen what he was capable of, Chris trained harder than ever that offseason. He woke at 6 a.m. daily, just like when the brothers were kids. He'd bus into Toronto to meet at Anthony's place, and they'd train all morning.

While Anthony started his next season in the American Hockey League -- which is essentially the minor league directly below the NHL -- Chris played out of his mind for Kingston. He put together a better season than his big brother ever had, racking up 37 goals and 50 assists. He made first line and was named team captain. Chris ended the season ranked third in the Ontario Hockey League among draft prospects and seventh in all of North America. That summer, in 2006, the Colorado Avalanche drafted him in the first round.

Early in the season, Chris played and fought like a hungry, desperate kid from back in Kingston. If a teammate was wronged, Chris took it on himself to fight the culprit. But one day, after establishing himself as a valuable contributor, a coach pulled Chris aside and told him, "Hey, we've got other guys for that. You don't need to fight anymore."

Ever since, Chris has been the one on magazine covers, featured first in all the stories, while Anthony has become the brother in the background. In 2009-10, Chris made the cover of The Hockey News. Anthony was mentioned briefly in the story, which focused more on Chris' roommate, Wayne Simmonds, another black hockey player and a rising star with the Flyers.

It happened just in time. One day during the summer after Chris was drafted, as their mother sat on the front porch of the house Anthony had bought her, drinking her morning coffee and smoking her morning cigarettes, she had a massive heart attack. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was dead.

Role reversal

Anthony made the NHL in 2010-11. He performed well enough to earn a steady spot with Atlanta, getting about 15 minutes of ice time per game. The Thrashers traded him to Carolina for 2011-12, and that year, he and Chris, who'd been traded to the St. Louis Blues, played each other a couple of times. Neither game was memorable for much -- the teams split the series (neither brother registered a point) -- except for some ill-thought-out questions from reporters. One asked Anthony, "So, how's it feel that Chris makes more money than you?"

Anthony just looked at the guy sideways and curtly replied, "Good."

He laughs about it now. "What a stupid question," he said. "After the s--- we've been through? I don't care if he makes more than I do. Him making it after quitting -- two years after he'd quit, he gets back in the game, and then two years back in the game, he's a first-round pick and now he's doing great. That's a miracle, man."

And one of the most telling parts of that miracle? Chris walks this new road in, metaphorically, the same shoes he always has. "To this day, I've got a smaller foot than my brother," he said. "But I've always worn his hand-me-downs, and I still wear his size. Now I'm in the NHL and could have any pair of skates I want, but I still want the ones that are too big for me, because wearing those is what got me here."

The bad old past is gone but not forgotten

The brothers have all the plans you might expect them to have. They want to keep their old family safe and secure. They want to plan for their new families' future -- they're both engaged now, and Anthony has a kid with Chante, his longtime girl. They want to clean up their old neighborhoods, to help people in the same situation they used to be in and to give them a better chance at making it out. And they want to do that with hockey.

"We just want to keep up this cycle. That's how you grow the game with minorities," said Anthony, "helping out on a grassroots level. Taking care of the next guys in line."

That would be a nice way for the story to end. But we're dealing with humans, not Hollywood, so our ending isn't quite so warm and fuzzy.

Last summer, Anthony took a reporter with him to revisit East Side Motel, where he hadn't been since the family left years ago. Anthony was glad to remember what they escaped but still burdened by how bad it really was. "God," he said. "This is no place to f---ing be raising kids."

Anthony's career hasn't exactly taken off. He got stuck in the minors for a while, making just $50,000 a year. He nearly went bankrupt. He had to unload the house he had bought for his family. Even now, he struggles. While Chris will make $3.2 million this year, Anthony was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in January, and later that month ended up back in the minors, where he spent most of the season. He's angry about it -- like any competitor would be -- because it's a step backward, and going backward means a lot more to him than it does for most. He still sees it every time he visits his father.

For all the wonderful things Norman gave his boys, he's as hapless as ever. Anthony gave him an Escalade a few years ago. Now it just sits in the driveway, broken down, a half-full bottle of warm beer in the cup holder. For Anthony, it's Exhibit A of the family curse.

Norman sees it differently. "I just go sit out there," he said, "and even though it does not drive, I imagine it does drive, because it is a symbol, you understand, of where we have come from and where we have gone. I just sit there and dream about it all."

But that's what worries the brothers: All he does is sit there. Weeds overrun the yard, and junk and clutter and dust pile up in the house. "He just has no sense of the value for things," Anthony said. 

Anthony tried to get Chris to visit East Side with him, but the younger brother chose to stay put in his temporary digs in downtown Toronto's famous Thompson Hotel. He'd rather just enjoy that view.

"I'd rather just focus on where I'm going and what we can do about it now," he said, "rather than think about what we had to get away from."

Back at East Side, Anthony talked with some middle-aged men sitting on the old sidewalks. They had all the hallmarks of burnouts, from their old, torn-up clothes and ratty hair to their territorial, spaced-out interrogation. They said they'd been there nearly two decades, and they didn't recognize Anthony.

Anthony told them he used to live there, but he got out, and one of them said, "F--- yeah, man, I'm gonna get out someday, too."

Anthony nodded and said, "All the power to you."

Then Anthony walked over to the fence he used to climb. He grabbed the top of it and pulled himself up, remembering what it felt like. The wood splintered and cracked. "Man," he said, laughing. "I'd f---in' break this fence down now."