“Black Jack” Stewart, who patrolled Detroit’s blue line with bone-crushing ferocity between 1938 and 1950, was the kind of player Red Wings fans absolutely loved and all others absolutely loved to hate.
“Naturally, he was not a favorite of out-of-town fans,” teammate Max McNab said, with considerable understatement. “When we would go play in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston or Chicago, Jack would be the last one on the ice for us. At the very last minute this unbelievable booing would start. I would look up into the stands and be thinking, ‘What the hell is that all about?’ Then I’d realize that the the booing was because Black Jack had just stepped on the ice.”
Stewart never scored more than 5 goals or 19 points in a season, numbers that playmaking defensemen like Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey racked up in a good week. He concentrated on defense. He was a fine skater, was rarely caught out of position, and delivered hit after hit. He said that he used his heavy club-like stick not to score, but “to break arms.” Stewart was named a First- or Second-Team All-Star five times and played in the first four NHL All-Star Games, beginning in 1947.
Stewart once explained how he got his nickname. “I body-checked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital, he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.”
Stewart not only administered pain, he played through it, once playing an entire season with a broken hand. He attributed his strength to growing up on the family’s Manitoba farm, a place he returned to in the offseason.
“Jack was a guy who gave it his all, every minute of every game,” recalled Mark Beltaire of the Detroit Free Press. “At the end of every season I’d see him on the end of the bench, totally exhausted. He’d tell me, ‘Mark, this is my last game. No more.’ Next year he’d be back.”
In 1950, after he’d helped the Wings win the Stanley Cup in a thrilling seventh-game overtime victory over the New York Rangers, Stewart was part of a nine-man deal between Detroit and Chicago that at the time was the biggest trade in NHL history. The Blackhawks named him captain and assistant coach. He showed his new teammates what he was all about by coming back after having a ruptured disc removed.
Early in his second season with the Hawks, however, Black Jack suffered a minor skull fracture. The injury caused him to ask for his release so he could accept a position as player-coach with the New Westminster Royals of the Pacific Coast Hockey League. He went on to a long coaching career in the minors. After leaving hockey for good in 1963, he started a second career in harness racing. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964 and died of cancer in Troy, Michigan, in 1983, just a few days after his 76th birthday.
Curiously, Black Jack was so quiet that he was known as “Silent Jack” by his Detroit teammates. He also had the disconcerting habit of smiling as he banged opponents around the ice. As teammate Ted Lindsay, a disciple of Black Jack’s school of charm, once said: “When he had that smile, it was time for the opposition to look out.”