(Editor's note: This story was updated at 1 p.m. Thursday, July 30, with comments from Stuart)
Mark Stuart took a step away from hockey for a year.
He finished his college degree and soaked in the time he was able to spend with his wife, Christina, and their two children.
Now, with a third child on the way and his college diploma on his shelf, Stuart is ready to get back into the game and go back to college.
The 36-year-old Rochester native and former first round NHL Draft pick will begin his first coaching job, at any level, this fall when he joins Todd Woodcroft’s staff at the University of Vermont. Stuart will be one of two volunteer assistants for the Catamounts.
“Todd is someone I’ve always kept in touch with, even when I was playing in Germany and then when I came back here to Winnipeg,” said Stuart, who has called Winnipeg home since 2011, with the exception of one year playing pro hockey in Germany. “I was excited for him when he got the job there and we kept in touch.
“He reached out to me, said he might be looking for a volunteer assistant and asked if I was interested.”
Burlington, Vermont, is a long haul from Winnipeg, close to 1,500 miles. But Stuart had been looking for an opportunity to get back in the game and he said he didn’t want to settle for just any opportunity. He wanted the one that felt right.
After a discussion with his wife and family, he knew the opportunity to reunite with Woodcroft -- who as an assistant coach with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets during Stuart’s final season with the team -- was just what he had been searching for.
“It’s a big move for my wife and I, but we talked a lot about it and decided to do it,” he said. “I’m really excited to learn from Woody. I respected him a lot when I was a player. You look at his resume, where he came from, all the different roles he’s had. I’m really lucky to be able to learn from a guy like him.”
Stuart was a standout defenseman for Rochester Lourdes in 1999-2000, then played at the U.S. National Team Development Program for two years. The 6-feet-2, 215-pound blue-liner was a 2003 first-round draft choice of the Boston Bruins, who played three seasons at Colorado College before spending 12 seasons in the NHL. In all, he played in 699 NHL games over 12 seasons with the Boston Bruins, Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets, recording 27 goals, 97 total points and 745 penalty minutes.
He played one year of pro hockey in Germany, in 2017-18, then spent a year on the hockey operations staff with the Manitoba Moose, the Winnipeg Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“I was able to learn all the aspects of the other side of the game, outside of being a player,” Stuart said. “The past year I took a step back from the game, finished my degree. When the pandemic started, I had just started planning for next season, reaching out to people about some opportunities and I kept some of those conversations going.”
Stuart and Woodcroft developed a strong relationship during the 2016-17 season in Winnipeg. Stuart played in only 42 games that season, after having spent the previous four seasons as the Jets' alternate captain. But Woodcroft developed a deep respect for Stuart’s professionalism.
"Often as a coach, you learn more from the players than they learn from you," Woodcroft said. "Working with Mark in Winnipeg and watching him approach his career as if every day were his last was something that always stood out to me.”
Stuart and Woodcroft haven’t been able to meet in person to fully discuss what Stuart’s role will be with the Catamounts this season, but Stuart said it will mostly involve working with the defensemen and the penalty kill -- an area where he excelled throughout his hockey career.
Stuart is one of two volunteer assistant coaches to join Vermont’s staff for the coming season. The other is Mike Babcock, the long-time NHL head coach who led Detroit to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and has close to 800 career wins.
“I want to help out anywhere and any way I can,” he said. “I’m going to soak up as much as I can, and learn and grow as a coach.”
Woodcroft took over the Vermont program from Kevin Sneddon, who retired in March after 17 seasons as head coach. The Catamounts were 2-18-4 in Hockey East play and 5-23-6 overall last year. Woodcroft believes Stuart can help in the program’s turnaround.
“When the process to hire a coaching staff began, the question started with a ‘what’ versus a ‘who,’” Woodcroft said. “Mark hit every aspect of the ‘what’ and I know that his approach to this job will be reflective of everything I ever saw from Mark as a professional -- he will earn the right to represent this team every single day. Players can expect to learn daily from Mark what it takes to be a professional -- on and off the ice."
Stuart is one of four standout hockey-playing siblings. His older brothers, Mike and Colin, both played at Colorado College and in the NHL, and their younger sister Cristin was a standout defender at Boston College from 2004 through 2008.