Jason Stewart is a sports fan. He roots for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Miami Dolphins, but he is also a super fan of the Pembroke Lumber Kings and he is about to celebrate a milestone birthday. On February 3, 2021, Jason will turn 50 years old, but this birthday celebration will be like none he has ever experienced.
If we weren’t in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, his family would be bringing together his friends to spend time with Jason, but in the midst of an Ontario wide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, his mother, Janet Baird, struggled with what to do to make his day special. While the pandemic and the need to quarantine has been tough on everyone, it has been extremely difficult for intellectually challenged people and their families. Jason has Down Syndrome and much of his life centres around social interaction. It’s how he became a Lumber Kings fan, but with no opportunity this year to hold a traditional birthday party, Jason’s Mom turned to social media.
Janet Baird had one ask. Would you send a birthday card to Jason? Hundreds of people have responded including many who are part of the Lumber Kings network, including players, alumni, fans and media who cover the team. No wonder-Jason is universally loved.
For many years, Jason has proudly worn his Lumber Kings jersey and sat behind the team’s bench at the Pembroke Memorial Centre. His connection to the team started many years ago when as a teenager Jason became eligible for services at home through the Ontario March of Dimes, a program that helps fund social activities for intellectually challenged individuals. Jason was still in school, so the program helped him make new friends as his family was able to hire students who would take him to movies and other events without his parents being present.
Jason was always outgoing and so he responded very well, easily engaging in conversation with his workers and everyone he came in contact with during these interactions. In his last year of school he told his Mom he wanted to work with “Sam.” His Mom didn’t know who Sam was and Jason didn’t offer a last name, but he insisted that his Mother write a note to Sam, so Baird did and gave it to Jason to take to school. The student was Samantha Turcotte, who introduced Jason to Lumber Kings hockey. The rest is history. Jason has been hanging around the team ever since.
When he was finished school, his family formally approached the team if Jason could be more involved and get to know the coaches and players better. There was no hesitation as coaches like Mac MacLean, Kevin Abrams and Sheldon Keefe brought Jason into the inner circle of the club, allowing him to connect with the players before and after games, letting him engage in dressing room pep talks, participating in team social activities, such as the annual Santa Claus Parade, and even travel to road games on the team bus.
In fact, on one night, Jason was the hero when the bus broke down on the way home from a game. It was too dark for the driver to see under the hood of the bus to determine what had caused the bus to fail so the driver asked if anyone had a flashlight? Jason always carried a small pocket flashlight, as his family wanted him to have one just in case there was a power outage in the arena when he was watching a game. Jason enthusiastically shared his flashlight with the driver and the problem was solved quickly and the team was back on its way. Jason’s contribution led to a rousing celebration on the bus, preventing what could have been a very long night for everyone had the bus remained stalled on the side of the highway.
When the Lumber Kings won their only national junior hockey championship in the spring of 2011 the team was greeted with a heroes welcome when they returned to Pembroke. The celebration included a parade through the city’s downtown culminating with a huge rally in the parking lot of the Pembroke Memorial Centre where Jason joined the players and coaching staff as they took centre stage.
It was the climax to an incredible season and Jason was there every step of the way. The national title belonged to the entire community, but for Jason it was a truly an incredible moment. He hugged everyone. For years he had been such a positive influence on the team, creating special bonds with players like Jamie Wheeler, Mike Daoust, Stevie Gilchrist, Jeff Vautour, Jamie Allard and his extended family of brothers (Justin, Adam, Tyson and Kyle). The players would pick Jason up at his home before practice once a week and look out for him. The bonds created with the players and their families were real, such as Jeff Vautour who asked Jason to stand in his wedding.
Hockey is in Jason’s blood. His paternal Grandfather, Donald Guy Stewart, was a great player who suited up with the Pembroke Little Lumber Kings who made it to the Eastern Canadian Memorial Cup Final in the 1935-36 season. Jason’s family hockey history beautifully ties a bow to his very special relationship with the Lumber Kings.
A few years ago, Jason lost sight in his right eye from a congenital defect that the family was not aware of and it’s made it more difficult for him to enjoy Lumber Kings games. It may be the reason that Jason had been attending fewer Lumber Kings games in the past couple of years. His absence has been noticed and everyone in the Lumber Kings family hopes he’ll return to the games when the pandemic ends and Lumber Kings hockey returns.
In the meantime, we’ll join the entire community in wishing Jason a very happy 50th birthday and encourage everyone to keep sending him birthday wishes and cards. This special Lumber Kings super fan deserves it! Go Kings Go and Go Jason Go!
Birthday cards for Jason can be mailed to: P.O. Box 43, Pembroke Street East, Pembroke, ON. K8A 6X1