The North Delta Huskies played against D.W. Poppy Redhawks for the 2018 Stan Stewardson Night at North Delta Secondary. (James Smith photo)

North Delta Huskies honour late basketball coach Stan Stewardson

Basketball 'is bigger than you, it's bigger than me but it's not bigger than us'

Emotions were high as North Delta Huskies past and present came together last week to pay tribute to legendary basketball coach Stan Stewardson.

Stewardson, the much-beloved former coach for both Huskies and Simon Fraser University, passed away suddenly on Oct. 26, 2017, one day shy of his 79th birthday, leaving behind a legacy that is still a huge part of the programs he helped created.

SEE ALSO: Stan Stewardson, former North Delta Huskies and SFU basketball coach, passes away at 78

Current students mixed with NDSS alumni, including players from the 1970-71 provincial championship-winning team, and members of the Stewardson family as the senior boys — sporting black t-shirts with “STAN DAWGFATHER” printed in gold — took on Langley’s DW Poppy Secondary in the Huskies’ home opener.

In a ceremony before tip off, current NDSS coach Gary Sandhu welcomed everyone to Stan Stewardson Night and introduced former player John Buis (1970-73), who eulogized Stewardson before a moment of silence. At halftime, the team presented Stewardson’s family with a commemorative plaque signed by the senior boys and coaching staff.

“This is such a tribute to Stan. It’s just overwhelming the support of the community and the players, just unbelievable,” Heather Stewardson, Stan’s wife, told the Reporter. “[It was] just wonderful and so well done, you know, the t-shirts, the brochures, every detail is looked at. North Delta [Secondary] did just a terrific job.”

Many players and boosters from years past came out to honour Stewardson and watch the Huskies trounce the Redhawks 73-35, a fitting tribute to the man who turned around a losing high school team and took them to a B.C. provincial championship in 1971, eventually posting a 241-68 record. The team he built went on to win the title again in 1975 under then-rookie coach Bill Edwards.

“He kind of set a standard for high school programs,” said Mike McNeill, who played for Stewardson in high school (including on the 1971 championship team) and at university before joining him on the bench and eventually succeeding him as head coach for the SFU Clan. “There’s a lot of coaches around the province that have put a lot of time in, and many of them would look back at Stan as being one of their mentors.”

“From a North Delta standpoint, Bill Edwards is still coaching here, and Bill played for him in 1966-67,” McNeill continued. “I think those are kind of testaments to the fact that he had a huge impact on people.”

For Edwards, who returned to help coach the Huskies last year, the strong support on display from the North Delta community offered a kind of catharsis after losing a lifelong friend and mentor.

“You know, it’s such a large loss to me because Stan had such a strong influence on my life. So the closure that I think I get from this … I think now I can move on,” Edwards said. “It was great to see this team come back and see some of the players that I coached come back. That’s always enjoyable when we see each other.”

Edwards was able to offer a glimpse at what Stewardson was like from the perspective of both a player, a colleague and a close friend, and the lasting effect Stewardson had on everyone who knew him.

“Stan, as a coach, [was] very demanding, very intense, totally commanded respect. And the guys that played for him always played very hard,” he said.

“As a friend, he’d do anything for you. I’m sure you could ask any of the players that were out tonight and they’d be able to tell you what an influence he was on their lives. Especially so for me because he basically was the role model that I had to guide me when I first started coaching.

“I think, probably, there’s three or four of us that went on into coaching that Stan had the strongest influence on, because we saw him and we wanted to be successful like him. It was important to my life. Next to my own parents Stan was the guy that really set the direction that I went in.”

A dedication to hard work, that drive to compete at the highest level and the success that follows for players both on and off the court, may be Stewardson’s most enduring legacy. For Huskies coaches Gary Sandhu and Jesse Hundal, fostering a strong connection between their players and the decades of tradition and esprit de corps that existed at NDSS before either of them came to the school was one of the main motivators behind their decision to honour Stewardson that rainy Wednesday evening.

“Stan passed away suddenly and the connection that Bill Edwards had with Stan Stewardson is a very, very deep one,” Sandhu said. “When [Stewardson] passed away it really affected him. [Stewardson] did start this program and so we wanted to do something special that would tie together our generation with Bill’s generation and with Stan’s generation.”

“There’s kind of a passing-down-of-knowledge in this basketball program. It started with Stan, he passed his knowledge on to Bill Edwards, [1990s coach Tyler] Kushnir is a part of that, that knowledge got passed down to Jesse Hundal, and now I’m kind of the youngest and newest member of this coaching staff. So we needed to celebrate the person who first started this program, so that’s what we tried to do.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Huskies head coach Jesse Hundal.

“It’s about connecting generation to generation, understanding the roots of our program and making sure that the people that were the trailblazers for this program, that they felt that they’re always a part of this program,” Hundal said. “And it’s a good lesson for my players to understand that the program is bigger than you, it’s bigger than me but it’s not bigger than us.

“I wanted them to see that there are people that sweated on this floor just like they are and that it’s all about what’s on the front of your jersey that matters. That ‘North Delta’ means something to a lot of people, and I wanted them to learn those lessons, that you’re a part of this legacy and we’ve got a good program. And I wanted our alumni to feel appreciated. That’s the main thing.”

It’s a message that both coaches say their players have taken to heart.

“It’s so big because they actually understand our history. Jesse and I have tried to explain the history of this program, but it’s hard for 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids to understand because there’s not that many pictures, there’s no videos, and it’s the video/digital age,” Sandhu said. “And now I think they understand because seeing the look on the ’71 team alumni’s faces, to be appreciated and understood by this generation, that’s all we were going for.”

This year’s crop of Huskies even got a chance to meet the members of the 1971 championship team and pick their brains about what it was like to represent North Delta nearly half a century ago.

“This is a really neat experience, not only for the young guys,” said John Buis, who joined his former ’71 teammates for a photo with the 2018 senior boys team and the Stewardson family after the game. “They asked a lot of neat questions about what is was like then, and I think Jesse and Gary both want that connection with the past, and hopefully it will help in the future.”

If one were to look up and to the left as one walked into the gym at NDSS, one would see a large wooden crest salvaged from the school’s former athletic facility, a tangible reminder of the past that serves as a link between then and now. But it’s not the only bit of history built into the gym.

During his speech before the game, alumnus John Buis shared a secret with the crowd: back in 2003, when the floor was being installed in the new gym, he and Edwards placed photos of the 1971, 1975 and 1990 senior boys teams, all of which won provincial championships, under the centre of the court.

“That was really exciting when we did it, but we didn’t tell anybody. We kept it a secret for a while, waiting for the right opportunity to talk about it, and this was a great opportunity to do it,” Buis told the Reporter after the game. “It was a connection between the old gym and the old teams, and the new gym and the new teams.”

And Stewardson’s impact on those teams — and on basketball in B.C. as a whole — continues to be felt today. McNeill, in addition to his work at SFU, went on to coach the Canadian women’s team at the London Olympics in 2012. McNeill’s ’71 Huskies teammate Stu Graham is the president of Basketball BC. Dave Coutu, also of the ’71 team, had a long career as a coach, official and teacher in Langley.

“A lot of the guys from that team went on to contribute back to basketball,” Buis said of his former teammates. “When you go somewhere sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re from North Delta,’ and they’ll remember those teams and those games and those players. We made an impact on a small community at that time. It wasn’t quite Hoosiers, but it was pretty close.”

For Sandhu, building on the foundation Stewardson laid and adding to North Delta Secondary’s rich basketball history is what he, Hundal, Ewards and fellow coach Manvir Gahir strive to do everyday.

“There are so many North Delta [Secondary] grads and players that are littered throughout B.C. boys basketball, and that’s what’s so special about North Delta basketball,” Sandhu said. “It’s a very intimidating legacy to live up and we just try to do our best.”

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