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Jets' Stuart lays body on line

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There is evidence of a shiner blossoming under Mark Stuart's right eye and that same side of his face appears slightly puffy and swollen.

The stubble on his chin doesn't effectively hide a couple of old battle scars, long ago stitched up, and there is a faded hint of another on his right cheek.

"Probably most of them came from when I was younger fighting with my brother," says the Winnipeg Jets' defenceman with a grin after practice Friday at MTS Iceplex. "There are a few hockey scars here and there. This one here... my brother pushed me off the porch. I don't know how old I was, but a stick -- a twig -- went through my cheek.

"I had two older brothers so I got beat up then more than I do now."

Now most of these marks -- the scars, the shiners, the cuts, the bruises, the dents and welts on his feet and legs -- have in many ways come to represent Stuart and his approach to his craft. He is the ultimate 'team' guy. An unsung hero, the lunch pail and hard-hat type who does everything and anything for the crest on the front of his jersey.

Make no mistake, a Mark Stuart highlight DVD wouldn't include spinaramas, tape-to-tape stretch passes or end-to-end rushes. He is all about grit -- he is currently second in the NHL in blocked shots to Montreal's Josh Gorges (118 to 126) and his six fights is tied for tops on the club with Chris Thorburn -- and doing the dirty work to keep the puck out of the Jet net.

"If I tapped him on the butt every time he put his body on the line I'd be doing it all the time," said veteran netminder Chris Mason. "He'll do anything he can to help us win.

"You know, I don't gauge toughness just on a guy dropping the mitts. Toughness is showing up when you're tired and still bringing the same level. He probably has ice bags on his body after every single game but it doesn't slow him down. He's back at practice the next day. He just doesn't take days off. He's a great role model for a young team.

"And, believe me, you need guys like that."

A first-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2003, the 27-year-old Rochester, Minn. product came to the Thrashers/Jets organization last February along with Blake Wheeler in a trade that sent Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik to Beantown. Stuart, for the record, has played in 351 NHL games and has 17 goals and 31 assists.

But it's his presence in the room, not necessarily what shows up on the stat sheet, that is immeasurable. Just ask around.

"He's a heart and soul guy that just shows up and battles for his teammates," said captain Andrew Ladd. "He's a big leader in that room. I can't say enough about him. I know everyone in there appreciates what he does with the blocking shots and killing penalties... it's all the little things he does that helps us win games. A guy like that is invaluable."

"He's a pretty intense guy," added Zach Bogosian. "He'll smile and stuff like that, but when it's time to work he's the guy that's first in line and ready to work. He's a great leader and he does anything to win. He's stood up to some pretty tough guys recently. He has so much respect from his teammates. It's good to have a guy like that on your team because he's hard to play against."

Stuart grew up in a hockey-mad family. His older brother Mike played at Colorado College, in Austria and in the AHL and ECHL. Colin has suited up with both Rochester and Buffalo this season. And his sister Cristin played at Boston College.

And his father Michael just so happens to be the chief medical officer for USA Hockey and the vice chairman of Orthopedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic.

Asked before Thursday's win over Buffalo if his dad must cringe every time he drops to block a shot -- he'd understand better than most how much damage a Zdeno Chara slapper might inflict, after all -- Mark just grins.

"Ahh, he knows it's something I have to do," he said. "It's part of my job."

On Friday, Stuart offered up this take that could very well be his own personal mantra and best sum up why the man is so respected in the Jets locker-room:

"As long as we're winning, the bumps and bruises don't really matter," he said. "This is something I take very seriously. I like to win. I hate to lose more than I like to win."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 C3

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