Ryan Stewart describes the height of his professional playing career as a single AHL appearance for the Providence Bruins during the 2001-02 season.
Neither before nor after did Stewart ever reappear at the highest level of the minors leagues, much less threaten to make an NHL roster. He spent the majority of his seven-year pro career with the comically named Greenville Grrrowl of the ECHL.
But 16 years since Stewart retired and nearly immediately became the Grrrowl’s general manager, he has not only reached the NHL but become highly influential at this level.
Stewart, Mark Eaton and Kyle Davidson were promoted in July to assistant general manager positions for the Blackhawks, the first major dominoes to fall in the franchise’s year of front office shakeups.
Stewart now oversees pro scouting, Eaton heads the Hawks’ revamped player development department and Davidson leads hockey administration, a term for managing the salary cap and player contracts.
Together, they’ve brought a trio of relatively new voices to the Hawks’ behind-the-scenes operations.
“They have a seat at the table now in their new role,” general manager Stan Bowman said recently. “Before they were in more of a supporting role. I’ve noticed, just in the past four or five months with several of them, they’re taking big initiatives and they’re coming up with a lot of ideas.”
“It’s been great to get to know those guys even better than in the past,” Eaton said separately. “And to put our heads together at certain times, disagree at certain times and try to supplement the decision-making process...of the hockey ops staff.”
For Stewart, those fresh thought processes actually originated during his turbulent minor-league career.
“Bouncing around and seeing different leagues and meeting various people just gives you a better range of the different assets and styles you need to make [it in] the NHL,” he said. “I was able to retire and become an assistant coach, an AGM and a GM down in the minors. At those levels, you wear many hats with immigration, with travel, with trades, with agent work.”
When the Grrrowl folded in 2006, Stewart joined the Hawks’ organization as a video coach and slowly rose through the ranks, finally stepping into a leadership role within pro scouting in 2012.
Davidson followed a similar path, different only in that he started — in 2010 — at an even lower level: as a fresh-out-of-college Rockford IceHogs intern. That quickly turned into a Hawks internship, then a full-time job, then a manager role starting in 2015.
“It’s been about 10 years now of taking responsibilities as they became available and trying to constantly learn from those around me,” Davidson said. “It started with some video work, a little bit of analytics work, and then taking on whatever things on the administrative side I could, up until where we are today.”
Eaton took a far different and more prominent path to this AGM role. Many fans will remember him from his 650-game NHL career largely with the Predators and Penguins, highlighted by a 2009 Stanley Cup ring.
After retiring in 2013, he moved into a development coaching role with the Hawks.
“I always joked...[that] when your sole responsibility is making sure you’re ready to play every given night, you don’t think a lot into what goes on with running an NHL team,” Eaton said. “You think, ‘How hard can it be to put a team of 25 together?’
“But I learned pretty quickly when I came on seven years ago about all the moving pieces and the different dynamics. It’s been a constant learning process.”
Their 2020 promotions have not dramatically changed their respective duties, but nonetheless increased the weight given to their opinions in discussions about the draft, trades and free agency.
The front office has shifted significantly around them, too.
Bowman, to whom they directly report, added the hockey operations presidency to his resume. Meghan Hunter was promoted to director of hockey administration, just beneath Davidson. Kendall Coyne Schofield and Erik Condra were added to Eaton’s player development staff.
Bowman himself had high praise for all three during a recent press conference.
“[Eaton has] come up with some creative ideas about how we can stay connected to our players to give them better feedback,” Bowman said. “He’s done a great job commanding his staff to think outside the box a little bit.
“In Ryan Stewart’s case, it’s somewhat similar. His group focuses on scouting, and although there haven’t really been any games to scout...he’s undertaken a few projects.
“Kyle Davidson has really become the right-hand man on a day-to-day basis with salary cap preparations, contract negotiations, contract research, in addition to scouting. He’s taken an interest in...watching players all over Europe, and for the draft, to keep an eye on.”
Although the pandemic has forced some changes upon all aspects of sports, all three said they plan to implement even more new uses of technology moving forward.
Eaton has worked to increase the Hawks’ rate of gathering information about their prospects and to find new software that will generate actionable uses for that information.
“Outside of Rockford, our amateur prospects are not guys we’re with on a daily basis, so it’s checking in with their coaches to see how they approach their development,” he said. “Every prospect learns differently, so it’s up to us to learn how each of our prospects learns most effectively and develop that plan around that.”
Davidson has helped the rest of the Hawks’ front office comprehend the nuances of this summer’s collective bargaining agreement extension and flattened salary cap.
And Stewart has ramped up his scouting in European leagues — most of which began their seasons on time this fall — to find the next Artemi Panarin or Dominik Kubalik.
“I was able to win a championship as a player [with Greenville], and there’s no greater feeling,” Stewart said. “But then to have experiences with our three championships in Chicago, it’s a different feeling being part of the building of those teams.”