Antigonish goalie turns heads playing high-level hockey on boys' team

Rhyah Stewart spent this season playing for the Cape Breton West Islanders in the Nova Scotia Major U18 Hockey League. (John Campbell - image credit)
Rhyah Stewart spent this season playing for the Cape Breton West Islanders in the Nova Scotia Major U18 Hockey League. (John Campbell - image credit)

It's been a season of growth and development for Antigonish's Rhyah Stewart.

The 16-year-old goalie from Antigonish showed she could shine in a boys' league as a member of the Cape Breton West Islanders of the Nova Scotia U18 Major Hockey League, the highest level of hockey for that age group in the province.

"This season has been a great experience for me," said Stewart, who has to travel 75 minutes to Port Hood to play with the Islanders.

"I think playing in this league has really pushed me to become a better player."

In 21 regular-season games for the Islanders, she had seven wins and 11 losses and a 3.67 goals-against average. She faced more shots — 771 — than any other goalie in the league and had the eighth-best save percentage.

Playing on boys' teams is nothing new for Stewart. The Grade 11 student at Dr. John Hugh Gills High School has always played boys' hockey. This year was her first in the U18 league.

When the Islanders were eliminated from the league playoffs recently, it capped off a four-week stretch of hockey that seemed like a blur for Stewart.

Len Wagg/Communications Nova Scotia
Len Wagg/Communications Nova Scotia

The league playoffs came immediately after Stewart led Nova Scotia's women's team to a silver medal at the Canada Winter Games in P.E.I. It was Nova Scotia's first medal in women's hockey in Canada Games history and the first for any Atlantic women's team.

"That whole experience at the Canada Games was incredible and for me it really was, like, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Stewart.

Kori Cheverie coached the Canada Games team. Cheverie, a New Glasgow native, is also an assistant coach with Canada's national women's team.

"Rhyah played extremely well and really had the hot hand," said Cheverie. "She made big saves when we really needed her to make them."

Stewart has a little experience with Hockey Canada.

Len Wagg/Communications Nova Scotia
Len Wagg/Communications Nova Scotia

She was the youngest player invited to a Hockey Canada U18 selection camp last summer in Calgary. While she did not make the team, she is likely to get invited back this summer.

"From her performance at the Canada Games, combined with the body of work that she's shown in her league play this year, she has set herself up pretty well to potentially get invited back to that camp," said Cheverie. "Hopefully, she will get rewarded with another tryout."

The Stewart family is well-known in the Antigonish hockey community.

Rhyah's father, Dave, is from Antigonish and played for St. FX before embarking on a minor-pro career that spanned seven seasons. He is an assistant coach with the St. FX men's team.

Rhyah also has three brothers who play competitive hockey.

People who know the family aren't surprised with her success. Her natural ability and willingness to improve her game is what makes her game stand out.

John Campbell
John Campbell

"The way she prepares and the way she can read plays is second to none," said Cape Breton West goalie coach Blade Mann-Dixon, an Antigonish native who played for Cape Breton West before moving on to play major junior and with St. FX.

"In my opinion she's one of the best, if not the best, goalies in our league."

Stewart plans to play one more season with Cape Breton West as she finishes her final year of high school. She is expected to announce her commitment to a U.S. college program as early as this spring.

"I want to play internationally for Canada someday and be in a professional league that is sustainable," said Stewart.