RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes forward Anthony Stewart left to play hockey in England during late September, not long after the NHL lockout began.
He is now back and happy he had a chance to get in some games but ready for the NHL season to begin.
And in spite of the current situation, he believes there will be one.
Ive still got faith, Stewart said Monday. Its a waiting game now, but youve got to have that optimism.
Stewart signed with the Nottingham Panthers of the Elite Ice Hockey League and played 19 games. While it wasnt close to NHL-level competition, he was able to play 17 or 18 minutes a game, was used on special teams and got in conditioning work.
Stewart, who had never been to England, also was able to get in some sightseeing.
It was a great life experience, he said. The main thing over there was to just get some games in and stay in game shape. Its a lot easier to fall out of shape than stay in shape.
I left the team in first place. It was definitely a great time.
Stewart said he returned to the United States on the advice of his agent, Eustace King. Many believe a collective-bargaining agreement could be coming soon others strongly disagree.
Thats not necessarily reading into anything about the (CBA) talks, he said. It was just in case we do get going I dont want to have played too many games. If we get going its going to be a lot of games in a short time.
I wanted to get back and rest the body a bit just in case something happens. Get acclimated to the time change and get some practices in.
The Nottingham Panthers have a league-leading 17-4-1 record. Stewart, who had six goals and five assists, said the league has some players who were in the American Hockey League the past couple of seasons.
I underestimated it a bit, he said of the competition. Its a big ice surface and some guys are really fast. Its a skating league.
Stewart, 27, worked hard during the offseason reshaping his body, shedding about 10 pounds and reducing his body fat from 17 percent to 11 percent. He said he didnt spend a lot of down time in England in pubs or eating steak and kidney pie.
Im still lean and mean, said Stewart, who said he maintained his weight at 227 pounds.
Stewart, whose brother Chris was playing in Germany, did a number of promotions for Nottingham. A team news release noted of his departure, Its a shame because hes been such a great guy and we all wanted to make a fuss of him at the end of his time with the club.
Stewart became something of a celebrity. He said CNN in Europe, among others, did a piece on him.
It was great to be in the spotlight, he said, laughing. They labeled me an NHL star, which is a bit of an overstatement, but it was great to get some media attention. That helped the ego a little bit.