Stewart knows the joy of sax

Ethan Stewart
(Photo courtesy of Ferris State Athletics)

If anyone ever sees a need to make Ethan Stewart feel more at home at Ewigleben Arena, a menu of options exists.

There are public-address system staples like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “It’s My Life” and “You Give Love a Bad Name.” If Ferris State’s visitors incur a penalty and Stewart is summoned to the power-play unit, there is “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”

Or even, at the last game before a long break, any version of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” To heighten the hometown feel, maybe switch gears from Bon Jovi to Cheap Trick.

But the disc jockey need not go it alone. This is college hockey, after all, and FSU’s pep band is rife with saxophonists. Some tenor solos, in particular, could hit the spot for Stewart, who has been in those musicians’ shoes before.

Based on Stewart’s admission, the notion that plexiglass, helments and facial cages cancel all outside disturbances at game time is slightly exaggerated. He cannot help taking note of the canned entertainment and seizing a little extra adrenaline from it.

“I do enjoy listening to the music in the pregame warm-ups,” he told Pucks and Recreation this week. “Sometimes a song will come on and I think, ‘Oh, I played that song in high school.’”

The sights, sounds and activity make for pleasant flashbacks to the Stewart household as well. Between playing definitive travel hockey and playing the tenor sax in his school’s band, home time was at a premium. Stewart tended to spend those minutes honing his puck-handling and shooting skills in the basement.

Meanwhile, in the next room, his father would often devote his leisure time to covering classic rock on his guitar. “My dad used to be able to play any song ever,” he says. “Any classic rock song or country song.”

Through that, in no small part, Bon Jovi grew to be one of Stewart’s favorite artists. But he is far from finicky in terms of what music he consumes, produces or how.

Raised in Rockford, Ill., Stewart comes from a versatile hockey family. The middle of three brothers, he is the lone forward in the brood. Its eldest member, Hayden, graduated from Cornell this past spring and now tends the net for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones. The youngest, Harrison, is a defenseman for the NA3HL’s North Iowa Bulls.

Growing up, all three assumed a cornucopia of musical positions as well. While their father, Brad, instilled their guitar hobby, their mother, Kate, enrolled them in piano lessons throughout elementary school.

By age 12, Stewart had more instrumental autonomy, and his music teacher turned him on to the tenor sax. Once again, the variety motif was in play.

“You can play high or low pitches,” Stewart says. “You can be the main part of a song, the main tone or play more of a backup role. There’s a lot of versatility.”

Although primarily synonymous with jazz, the tenor sax also bears broad genre horizons. Stewart kept the classic rock coming in both private and formal performances with his high-school marching band.

It helped to learn, as he did during his sophomore year, that Guilford High School produced three-quarters of Cheap Trick. (The fourth founding member, Robin Zander, went to Harlem High six miles up the road.)

Being Rockford’s musical pride alone made Cheap Trick a natural staple in the Stewart residence playlist. But at Guilford, knowing that Bun E. Carlos, Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterrson fostered the same fundamental interest within the same facilities made it “fun to be part of that same atmosphere.”

Stewart also had the pleasure of mastering a marching-band rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for halftime at the homecoming football game in 2014.

“We made the formation of hs famous glove and his legs to do the moonwalk,” he recalled. “We’d go out every day for weeks prior to get the movements down.”

In those moments, a cliché command from coaches at the rink all but rang in his head. There he was trying to make things happen with a handheld tool while moving his feet swiftly and smoothly.

“I do remember that, at one point during the song, I had to walk kind of at a 45-degree angle to the right and forward,” Stewart said. “Had to rush to get to the new spot to make it look good. Trying to get my feet going in the right direction.

“It’s kind of funny. I had to move my feet pretty quickly to get in position.”

The truth was, in those days, Stewart’s body collectively was just short of a shark’s the way it kept rolling. It needed to.

Besides the marching band, the jazz band and the syllabi at Guilford, he was honing his hockey craft with the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals. That commitment entailed a 90-minute commute to practice three nights a week, usually with academic cramming sessions in the car.

With hockey still his chief long-term extracurricular pursuit, Stewart sacrificed rehearsals “once or twice.” That being said, “My band director was really good about that. He let me write a paper and make up for it.”

Over three seasons in the Admirals travel program, Stewart never missed a game. With their 18-and-under club in 2014-15, he tied for fourth on team scoring leaderboard in league play. Amidst all of that, he landed in Guilford’s National Honors Society as a senior.

“It was challenging,” he admitted. “But it was good for me because it taught me to be responsible at an early age.”

A three-year Junior-A detour between high school and college shelved the academic weight for a time. By that point, Stewart no longer had a sax of his own either.

But during North American League seasons in South Dakota, Alaska and Illinois, he made a point of perusing the local music scenes. His roommate with the Kenai Brown Bears was a fellow guitarist, and he was enthralled by the stores in Aberdeen.

“I just like musical instruments in general,” he said.

Since entering the Bulldogs’ ice kennel, Stewart has found ample company sharing his outside interest. Besides an action-shot profile picture, his lone specimen of Twitter activity this autumn has been a retweet that captured a teammate’s multi-talented essence.

The post, coming from the team’s account, went up on Oct. 7, when FSU claimed a come-from-behind 5-2 exhibition victory over Lethbridge. With a primary assist from Stewart, junior forward Dom Lutz got the offense rolling that afternoon by cutting an initial 2-0 deficit in half.

In response, the team Twitter feed stated, “Dom Lutz. Musician. Goal Scorer. You decide.” The accompanying video clip shows a helmetless Lutz shedding his stick and gloves in favor of a guitar, which he strums while shuffling offscreen.

Last season, Lutz and three teammates — Nate Kallen and Drew and Tyler Dorantes — constituted a rock band, the Don Cuatros. But the Dorantes brothers, who were the group’s backup guitarists, have since graduated.

Without even looking for it, Stewart might have put himself in a position to fill that void. Or to dust off his primary adolescence instrument and bring a new dynamic to the Don Cuatros. On the team’s second day of practice, he casually spoke of his saxophoning history with another teammate.

That was when, as Stewart recalls, the keyboardist Kallen turned his head and cannonballed into the conversation.

“That was the first time I talked to him much,” he said. “Now he wants me to try to get a sax. I probably should. It would be fun to join them.”

Given Stewart’s expressed interest in mastering the acoustic guitar, particularly for country music, Lutz is the ideal teammate to feed off of. But whether his hockey skills or in-the-making degree in business marketing form his professional basis, he hopes to keep his whole roster of instruments intact on the side.

“I always want to have a piano in my house,” he said. “Guitar and saxophone too. I want to be able to play them for my family when I’m older.”

Al Daniel

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