By Larry Wigge
For Game 4 Sunday night in San Jose, Brad Stuart stood tall for the Sharks.
Just like always. Whether, he was playing in Boston, Calgary, Los Angeles, Detroit or ... back in San Jose.
The 6-2, 215-pound defenseman plays with a bit of a mean streak that wasn't on display very much in his first go-round. He is a horse, he's a warrior. He comes to play every night. He knows his role and plays it as well as any defenseman in the league. Stuart block shots. In no uncertain terms, he did all the heavy lifting most top-flite defenders are supposed to do to send the Western Conference Semifinal series to Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
"I don't know who the idiot was that traded him out of here to begin with," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said with a smile.
The Sharks made Stuart the third player taken overall in the 1998 NHL draft, behind only Vincent Lecavalier and David Legwand. But, when the Sharks GM had a chance to get Joe Thornton from Boston on November 30, 2005, he couldn't pass up on that.
Stuart came into his own with the Red Wings during his four-plus seasons there, winning a Stanley Cup in 2009. With Detroit, he played with Nickas Lidstom. For most of the time there, he partnered with Niklas Kromwell in perhaps the game's best 3-4 teams around.
During his day in Detroit, he got homesick for his family.
Melissa was living in Los Gatos with Brad's stepdaughter, Cierra, and sons Jake and Logan. The Stuarts tried moving to Detroit as a family, but Stuart's stepdaughter didn't have a smooth transition. And so while Stuart played in Detroit, his wife, the stepdaughter and their two young sons lived in San Jose.
"Kind of a family thing. The Red Wings knew it," Stuart said of the dilemma. "I've been living apart from my family, who stayed back on the West Coast for the last couple of years.
"I missed quite a few milestones with my little sons ... and that was hard. Playing in Detroit was great for my career, because I learned a lot the last four-plus years. I've learned a lot in the time while I was gone and I feel like I'm a better player because of it.
"The Red Wings organization treated me first-class and did everything they could to make sure I was happy. It's tough to leave a situation like that. I've got mixed emotions about this. But the opportunity to be with my family is important to me."
Detroit worked out a deal with San Jose for the free-agent-to-be -- they traded Stuart in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2014 and forward Andrew Murray.
"There was no selling job," Stuart said, feinting a laugh. "San Jose wanted me as much as I wanted them.
"No longer wearing red and white. I'm back to the beginning -- wearing teal."
The only players left when he was in San Jose the first time seven years ago were Patrick Marleau and Scott Hannan, his old partner, who had just come back as well.
Said Wilson, "Brad is a player we are very familiar with -- a physical, team-first defenseman who is tough to play against, which is exactly the kind of mentality we want our team to possess. He's a true professional. He has been even beyond what we expected of him."
In San Jose, Todd McLellan, now formerly worked as an assistant under Mike Babcock in Detroit, was reunited with the Sharks.
"He's made us a more competitive back end," McLellan said. "Our penalty kill has improved immensely ... and he's played a huge role in that. He's a very physical player. Just the overall intensity of our blue line has gone up, in large part to his competitiveness."
The 33-year-old Stuart had no goals and six assists during the homecoming season. He had one goal and two assists in 10 playoff games -- making his 11th appearance in the postseason.
Stuart comes by his straightforward approach from his dad, Dwayne, who works for Husky Oil in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Jeannine, his mom, runs a medical supply store.
Not bad for a guy who surprised the hockey world at the scouting combine before his draft, when doctors discovered he was born with only one kidney. Obviously, his body adjusted and he's just fine.
Being born in Alberta, he was a Calgary Flames fans -- Al MacInnis was his favorite player.
He remembers May 25, 1989, the day the Flames clinched the Stanley Cup in Game 6 with a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
It was bittersweet for Stuart.
"I had a baseball game," a dejected Stuart recalled for me. "I couldn't watch the Flames. I had to hear that they won the Cup. It wasn't until later that night that we had a party to celebrate."
Then 9, Brad didn't get to see his hero, Al MacInnis, accept the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.
He was so-o-o-o-o depressed.
"I don’t even remember whether we won or lost our game," Stuart said. "I was bummed about missing THE GAME."
In fact, he didn't forget the unhappiness until Christmas Day, when his parents gave him a video that celebrated the Flames' Stanley Cup run entitled C (a Flaming C) is for champions.
"I played it hundreds of times," Stuart said. Then he winked and added, "I memorized most of it."
Stuart and Hannan sit next to one another -- again.
"Just like old times," Stuart said. "A lot of years have gone by, but it felt like nothing changed when he came back."
Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter once the Sharks coach in the early days and the Calgary Flames GM when he acquired Brad Stuart.
"You could see from Day 1 that his physical assets were tremendous, because he can do it all on the ice," said Sutter. "He's got a great vision for the game. But most of all, I love his character."
All is well now for Brad Stuart ... back in San Jose.