For ESPN.com and Outside The Lines.
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.
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.
“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.”