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Bill Stewart back coaching in Memorial Cup after Barrie Colts debacle

Guelph Storm assistant coach Bill Stewart looks from the bench during second period action against Val-d'Or Foreurs in Memorial Cup hockey action in London, Ont., Monday, May 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

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Guelph Storm assistant coach Bill Stewart looks from the bench during second period action against Val-d'Or Foreurs in Memorial Cup hockey action in London, Ont., Monday, May 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

LONDON, Ont. - The last time Bill Stewart was a coach at a Memorial Cup, he was the ringmaster of a circus.

Fourteen years ago in Halifax, he was the head coach of a Barrie Colts team whose stars behaved badly. Stewart's own actions at that tournament and during the 1999-2000 season were confounding too.

As talented as the Colts were in winning an Ontario Hockey League championship, the team appeared out of control because of the actions of a few players and their coach.

"I feel I have to show everyone every day that I've changed whether it's one year after or 14 years after," says Stewart, now an assistant coach of the Guelph Storm at the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Landing Stewart as a coach and general manager in 1999 was a coup for the Colts. At 42, he'd already won an OHL title with the Oshawa Generals in 1997, was named the American Hockey League's coach of the year in 1998 and was coming off a season as head coach of the NHL's New York Islanders in 1998-99.

Now 56, Stewart says coaching success had come soon and easily to him. When he joined the Colts, it was all about winning, even though coaching teenagers living away from home requires stewardship and mentoring away from the ice.

There was no shortage of drama.

Some of Barrie's key players, including leading scorer and captain Sheldon Keefe and top forward Mike Jefferson, who later changed his name to Danton, were represented by the controversial former player agent David Frost.

There was also trouble with the league and the law. Sexual assault charges against three Colts were later dropped, but hung over the team during their playoff run.

Ryan Barnes was suspended for 25 games for stick-swinging and Shawn Cation for 15 for instigating a brawl in October, while Ryan O'Keefe got 24 games for slew-footing in the playoffs.

Stewart brought his own can of gasoline to the fire. The most notorious incidents were twice smuggling a Ukrainian player over the U.S. border in the baggage compartment of the team bus.

He was stripped of the general manager's title by the OHL for that and barred from entering the U.S. Stewart couldn't coach his team in away games during the championship series against the Whalers in Plymouth, Mich.

At the Memorial Cup, the Colts continued to live up to their bad-boy image. The team was fined $5,000 because players walked out of the opening banquet prior to Canadian Hockey League commissioner David Branch's speech and for Barrie's antics during the opening ceremonies.

Stewart had the Colts skate around their end of the rink while ignoring the opening ceremonies and Keefe refused to shake Branch's hand for the ceremonial faceoff. Stewart also got a bench minor for screaming at an official in the opening game and incurred a delay-of-game pentalty in the semifinal when he sent the Colts out to skate again at the end of a TV timeout.

"Sometimes things get away from you," Stewart says. "Barrie was a tough year. You don't really want to go through those times. It wasn't one specific thing. It was a number of things.

"Any time you make decisions with emotions involved, it usually is the wrong decision. The unemotional decision is always the correct decision, 14 years later."

He reached out to Branch, who is also commissioner of the OHL, and the two men had lunch in 2006. Stewart wasn't banned from coaching in the OHL, but wanted to rebuild bridges with the commissioner.

"It was informal," Branch recalls. "I did most of the listening and Bill expressed a strong desire and interest to come back."

Stewart and Storm general manager Mike Kelly have known each other almost three decades as their paths crossed in Europe and in the OHL. When Kelly a scout for the NHL's Calgary Flames, he recommended Stewart as coach of their AHL team.

When Kelly took over as GM of the Storm in 2010, he needed to make a coaching change. He wanted his head coach to be Scott Walker, who had just retired from the NHL.

Kelly contacted Stewart because he felt his deep and broad coaching experience would be an asset on the coaching staff. A year after the 2000 Memorial Cup, Stewart had coached the Mannheim Eagles to a championship in Germany.

"I've always admired his hockey IQ. It's remarkable, there's no doubt," Kelly says. "But I also was concerned with some decisions he's made in the past.

"Obviously I was aware of what transpired in Barrie. I don't think any of us were pleased with it, but I think he paid a price. He was kept out of the United States for seven years when he couldn't cross the border and he moved back to Europe."

Stewart was a consultant with the Storm at first and was named Walker's assistant coach in 2011.

"To me, it gave Scott the best chance at having success," Kelly says. "It also gave Bill an opportunity to come back into the league. As Bill has said in some other interviews, he's on a short leash. He's representing the Guelph Storm, he's representing the Ontario Hockey League.

"There is no chance he can make another mistake or poor judgment and he's been very good in that. I think we can all grow by that 10 or 15 per cent and I certainly think he's done so."

The Guelph Storm will play in Sunday's final at this year's Memorial Cup. Both Kelly and Walker describe Stewart's personality as "strong."

"There's never a dull moment," Walker says. "He's an intense guy. We're very similar on the intense side. We want to win. It's just a matter of it's not a win at all costs all the time.

"Especially in junior hockey, there's a lot of balls to keep up in the air with these kids, keeping them balanced in school and life and billets. It's trying to keep a level head about it and I think he's done a good job."

Stewart wants to return to the NHL some day.

"That was basically my goal as far as coming back and being with Scott and growing again and making sure things are done properly and making sure I'm an asset to anybody I work for," he says. "There's more to coaching now than just the intangibles as far as motivating, communicating and knowing the game. You have to be media-friendly, you have to be outgoing, you have to be able to work with people and that's the new global game now."

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