Former Griffins Youth Foundation player Andrea Stewart was a member of Team USA at the World University Games in Italy.
Story by Mark Newman
Andrea Stewart couldn't believe it.
The Michigan State University sophomore was standing on the blueline of an outdoor hockey rink in the middle of majestic mountains in Austria. "It was basically every hockey player's dream," Stewart said. "It was so cool."
It was only an exhibition game against the Austrian national team, but it was special all the same. Preparing to play at the 2013 Winter University Games in Trentino, Italy, Stewart thought about how far she had journeyed from her days skating at Griff's IceHouse.
"If it wasn't for the Griffins Youth Foundation, I would never have played hockey," said the Grand Rapids native. "Some of the best memories of my childhood happened there. I'd spend every Saturday in the winter at Griff's IceHouse. I can say that I made a lot of friends there over the years."
The daughter of Corey and Lisa Stewart, she was thrilled to have been chosen to play defense on the U.S. Women's National University Team in the international competition. Even better, her Team USA squad took home the bronze, the first medal for the United States in either men's or women's competition at the Winter Games.
"This is a moment none of us will forget," said Mo Stroemel, head coach of the U.S. Women's Team. "We couldn't be happier with how this group represented their country during this tournament, both on and off the ice."
Team USA, which faced stiff competition during the Games, earned a 3-1 victory over Japan in the bronze medal game. A 3-2 shootout loss to Russia in the semifinals cost them a chance to play for gold against Canada. Other teams included Spain and Great Britain.
A total of 50 countries competed in a variety of sports, including skiing, snowboarding, speed skating and, of course, hockey. The Games featured the teams parading through the streets of Trentino as part of the Opening Ceremonies.
"The whole experience was so much fun," Stewart said.
Stewart and her USA teammates opened the hockey competition with a dramatic win.
"We watched 'Miracle' before our first game to get pumped and then we went out and beat Russia," she said. "We had all 20-plus girls piled into a hotel room watching the movie on my laptop."
The victory over Russia in the first matchup between the two countries was one of the biggest thrills for Stewart, who started skating when she was in second grade.
"My parents took my older brother Brad to the rink and coach Mark Izzard (the former Grand Rapids Owls player) asked me if I wanted to skate," Stewart remembers. "I nodded that I did and that's how it all started."
Stewart's transformation into a hockey player was gradual but remarkable. "When I started, I was a total princess and daddy's girl, but over the years I became so competitive that I turned into just the biggest tomboy," she said.
Nothing made Stewart happier than skating and playing hockey at Griff's IceHouse.
"When I was younger, I would do anything I could to get ice time," she said. "I would basically be at the rink from 8 o'clock in the morning until 5 o'clock at night on Saturdays. I was either teaching, playing, refereeing or working the scoreboard."
Stewart said she was "bound and determined" to improve her skills. "Eventually I was good enough that they let me play with the older kids," she said. "I snuck my way onto everyone else's team. I'd even play back-to-back games when I could."
After seventh grade, Stewart graduated to the Southside Owls, a house hockey club that played teams from nearby cities. She later played at Jenison High School. "Playing with boys was never a big deal to me," she said. "I guess I just fit in with the guys."
It was at Michigan State University that Stewart played on an all-women's team for the first time. The Spartans play twice every weekend against teams from the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
Stewart, who is a marketing major at State, hopes to eventually return to Griff's IceHouse to lend a hand, hoping to encourage other kids to follow in her path.
"The Griffins have done so much for the community that I would like to give back for everything they've done for Grand Rapids," she said.