Cam Stewart has been through it all. A former NHLer who played in an unforgiving era, Stewart counts nine documented concussions, three of which rendered him unconscious, to his name. The amount of undocumented concussions he sustained was much higher. Along with other injuries, Stewart's career was halted numerous times and throughout the years he dealt with a lot of dark days – a lot of dark years, too.
Now as a player agent with KO Sports, Stewart is hoping that his tale of struggles both physical and mental can help the next generation of players reach their dreams of becoming NHLers without having to bottle up their feelings and anxieties. His message for the hockey world is clear:
"You are the only one who knows how you are feeling," Stewart said. "Mental health awareness is getting there, but there is still a stigma; trying to be a tough guy or not wanting anyone to know about it. People have to be comfortable and know there are people out there who will help and they just need to reach out."
Stewart thought he'd be a football player when he was growing up in small-town Woolwich, Ontario, just like his dad. The goal was to play at the University of Western Ontario in London, but a chance call-up to the Elmira Sugar Kings Jr. B team launched him into hockey's stratosphere. Stewart scored 88 points in 43 games in his first year and was named league MVP. The next morning, he got a call from legendary University of Michigan coach Red Berenson. The NHL's Boston Bruins were also interested, drafting Stewart 63rd overall in 1990 after he scored 138 points in his second year with Elmira. Tough and talented, he headed to Michigan and played three seasons for the Wolverines before signing with the Bruins, earning the first-ever one-way contract for a player coming straight out of college.
Things started off great for Stewart, playing on a line with Cam Neely and Adam Oates. But during a fight with Edmonton's Ian Herbers, Stewart snapped his ringfinger in half. He missed months after having pins put into his finger and never lined up with Neely and Oates again.
"That was the hardest part of the NHL," Stewart said. "Trying to find your place and then staying there."
Even though he was drafted as a big-time scorer, Stewart was pigeonholed as a shift disturber and momentum-changer. Fighting was a great way to keep the coaches happy but it didn't always work out: Stewart laughs as he recalls the time he picked a fight with Florida heavyweight Paul Laus, a tilt he obviously ended up losing. His Bruins teammates asked him why he would pick a fight with such a tough guy, to which Stewart replied that when he looked at the stats, Laus had only 60 PIM and it was three-quarters of the way through the season. What he failed to look at was Laus' games played at the time: three.
Years later, Stewart and Laus were roommates at training camp. Laus fell off the bed laughing when Stewart explained his mistake.
But the real beginning of the end came in 2001 at Minnesota Wild training camp. Stewart took a bad pass up the middle in an exhibition game and as he reached back to look for the puck, he took an opponent's shoulder right to the chin. He blacked out immediately. That night, back at his apartment, Stewart passed out in the shower and spent the next five days in hospital. He credits Wild GM Doug Risebrough with always keeping him in the loop during his recovery, but it was a very hard time.
"I tried to bike and do some other things, but I would get sick all the time," Stewart said. "So instead, I started walking around the Mall of America, just walking the different levels of the mall."
His playing career was finished, but he stayed in hockey as an assistant coach under Todd McLellan with Minnesota's AHL team, the Houston Aeros (where he had previously played when the Aeros were in the IHL). The team won the Calder Cup that 2003 season, then finished last the next year. Struggling with his mental health, Stewart realized his head just wasn't in coaching. His old Michigan buddy Brian Wiseman came to Houston and the pair got into real estate, flipping houses under the name Breakaway Ventures.
In both Minnesota and Houston, Stewart gravitated towards children's hospitals, even setting up a Minnesota Wild room at the Children's Minnesota Hospital in St. Paul. Along the way, he met patients going through heartbreaking afflictions and forged strong friendships with a number of them. Calling out bingo numbers every Friday night for those kids put everything in perspective for him.
Stewart would eventually find his way back behind the bench in Houston, until happenstance led him to Toronto, where he would meet his wife and take a job coaching the Jr. A St. Michael's Buzzers (their best player? Reilly Smith). But the coaching gig didn't really pay, so Stewart got into the mouthguard business, facilitating a deal between Bite Tech mouthguards and Under Armour. For someone still struggling with concussions, it was a product he was passionate about and the safety aspect allowed him to give back to the game he loved.
"The bite plate, on the back teeth, I would wear during the day," he said. "It was helping my headaches and I had no idea why. But it kept the airway open. When you grind your teeth, it tells your body that you're stressed and cortisol starts coming out. This mouthguard kept the airway open and helped my headaches."
Stewart was doing well with his job, until a car accident plunged him back into a concussion fog. For the next six or seven years, life was tough for Stewart; on top of his own health, he now had a wife and kids to think about and his health made everything difficult.
"Some of those times – it kills me when you weren't able to be there, or reacted in a way you didn't want to react – they still bug me, which I'm sure they do for every parent," he said. "But you have to learn not to beat yourself up all the time. That's what I would do; I'd think it was all my fault. 'Concussion Cam,' I would say to people."
That's when the next phase of Stewart's life came into focus.
When Kurt Overhardt was a young agent trying to find his place in the hockey world, he took a trip down to Ann Arbor in hopes of starting an advisory relationship with some Michigan kids making noise for the Wolverines. The 25-year-old lawyer was in a full suit and tie on a sweltering day when he met Stewart at Pizza Bob's for a chat. Overhardt didn't seal the deal that day, but years later Stewart hired him as his NHL agent and even after Stewart's playing days were over, Overhardt made sure to keep tabs on him. Stewart had worked at development camps for Overhardt and when the Colorado-based agent was hoping to make more in-roads in talent-rich Ontario, he asked Stewart to start watching games and eventually brought him on as an agent.
"Cam was perfectly situated to get into our business," Overhardt said. "He had played the game at the highest level, but more importantly, his strong personal character and thoughtfulness made him a perfect fit for us."
The first player Stewart tracked was Riley Damiani, now a Dallas Stars prospect and the 2021 AHL rookie of the year with Texas. Other recent KO Sports clients include Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Cole Perfetti, Edmonton Oilers prospect Ty Tullio and top 2022 draft prospect Shane Wright, the most recent OHLer to receive the Exceptional Status designation to join the league a year early (Wright went on to win OHL and CHL rookie of the year honors with Kingston).
"The biggest thing for us was the kind of people they were," Perfetti said. "If you meet Cam and Kurt and everyone in the company, they're down-to-earth people. They actually care for me as a person and don't see me as a dollar sign or a figure. It's a very family-like feel."
That's something echoed by the Wright family, who actually met Stewart through the Perfettis.
"Right off the hop he was very honest and you could tell his heart was in the right place," said Simon Wright, Shane's dad. "You felt good having conversations with Cam."
Even before the family had officially signed on with Stewart and KO, the Wrights knew they could turn to him for help. Years ago, Wright broke his foot and with Simon in the U.S. at a soccer tournament with daughter Madeline, his mom called Stewart.
"He's so calm and measured and he actually does care," said Tanya Wright. "He literally has a relationship with everybody. And I don't think you have that if you're not inherently a good person and a good listener."
Stewart doesn't burn bridges and that goes a long way in explaining why he has a knack for knowing everyone. When Wright sustained a hairline fracture in his foot at this year's world under-18 championship in Texas, Stewart called a buddy – who just happened to be the trainer for the Dallas Stars. The very next day, a pair of shotblockers for Wright's skates arrived at the rink, allowing Wright to get back into the tournament and help Canada win gold.
But on top of all that, Stewart just wants to make sure his young clients are doing alright. Mental health is a priority.
"It's massive and has become a bigger, more relevant topic and it's obviously very serious," Perfetti said. "I've definitely had times in hockey where it's been frustrating. This year was my first time really being alone and I had a little bit of a dry spell, not playing the best early on and it was tough. Luckily with Cam and the support group I have with KO Sports and my family, they were really helpful. I talk to Cam a couple times a week throughout the year, giving him updates and he was an outlet for me; I could say what I needed to get off my chest and he was really good for that."
For the Wrights, Stewart can be that adult voice their son Shane will listen to when he doesn't necessarily want to hear something from his parents (something everyone who has kids can relate to).
"With all my clients, most of the interactions were with the parents, but now, once the kids are comfortable, they want to call you," Stewart said. "That's great, because I can see how they're feeling. Let me know how you're feeling at the end of the week. I just like that, it makes me feel better."
It's something Overhardt is certainly on board with, as well.
"Everyone always focuses on the physical development of a player," Overhardt said. "There has never been a focus on mental health. It's a complicated issue and it's important."
Over the years, through all the struggles, Stewart had a lot of help. He tapped into the resources of the NHLPA and the NHL Alumni Association. From Dr. Brian Shaw to a number of specialists in different medical fields, it's almost bittersweet that Stewart knows a doctor for every problem.
"I'm so used to pain in my body, I don't even know when I have headaches now," he said. "But you find different ways, whether it's breathing techniques or heat, or you figure out a lot of it is coming from your neck so I go to a chiropractor every week, I do massage, I do acupuncture."
But if all that struggle, both physical and mental, can help the next generation, it turns into a positive. Stewart's message is clear: It's OK not to be OK and if you reach out for help, there are people who will be there for you. Take care of yourself, so you can help others. And it's a message he believes should be heard by everybody, not just those in the hockey community.
It's been a long and winding journey to get to this point, but the next act in Stewart's life is looking like a great one.