Leeds Knights: Mack Stewart returning to Knights with Elite League experience in the bag at Belfast Giants
DAVE WHISTLE expects to have teenage forward Mackenzie Stewart back for this weekend when his Leeds Knights team faces a hectic schedule of three games in as many days.
When the 17-year-old does return to West Yorkshire - he made his Knights debut two weeks ago in the 3-1 win at Basingstoke Bison - it will be as a player fresh from having gained his first experience of top-flight Elite League hockey.
Stewart came up through the Belfast Junior Giants system and, while back in Northern Ireland at the weekend, was handed his senior team debut by head coach Adam Keefe, along with fellow teenager, defenceman Kell Beattie.
The pair played in the Giants’ two Challenge Cup games against Fife Flyers, enjoying a 2-0 win in Kirkcaldy on Friday night before stepping out to a rapturous reception from their own fans in Belfast two nights later ahead of a more comfortable 6-2 win.
Stewart made the step up for the Giants having proved himself during his first taste of senior hockey with the Knights the previous weekend, posting three assists in a 10-4 home win over Raiders IHC.
His performance across both nights and the no doubt positive feedback from Knights’ coach Whistle is likely to have convinced Keefe that Stewart was ready to step up again.
For Stewart, it was understandably a memorable moment when he took his first shift for hi hometown club but, like he did at Leeds, he seemed to take it all in his stride.
“You don’t really get nervous before game time, maybe an hour or so before the nerves can kick in, but when you step on to the ice you’ve just got to play the game,” Stewart told Ulster TV after the win in Belfast. “Obviously, if you get nervous then your head’s not in the game.”
With his team clinching a quarter-final spot in the competition with two group games still to play, Keefe is likely to turn to Stewart again before the knockout stages.
“It’s massive for them,” said Keefe. “At 17 I was playing against kids my own age and here they are, up against men that have storied, professional careers. It’s so impressive.
“The moment wasn’t too big for them, either. Obviously there’s going to be a lot of caution out there with them not wanting to make a mistake but as the game went on they settled even more.
“It was nice to see them out there contributing and nice to see the players competing for them too.