‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
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Expectations can make or break the paths of promising young talents around the National Hockey League. Making good on early potential can often be a hurdle for many players during their sophomore years in the NHL but not for Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers.
He took a successful 45-point rookie campaign and continued to endear himself to fans at Madison Square Garden with his progress, as he’s projected to collect 61 points this season.
It’s easy for any 21-year-old athlete to fall victim to a number of traps that come with playing in New York. This city can build up a player to the point that he believes in his own hype. Overconfidence is a dangerous thing for young hockey players but it isn’t something that seems to affect Stepan in any measure.
Stepan has dealt gracefully with the pressure of high expectations throughout his hockey life. As a teenager, he followed the footsteps of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and Jack Johnson at the prestigious boarding school Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota.
I had the opportunity to speak with Shattuck-St. Mary’s head coach Thomas Ward, who shared his thoughts on how experiences gained at the ‘Centers of Excellence’ helped shape Derek’s career.
“It’s a very challenging environment here with stringent academics and what we think is an accelerated athletic experience. For the kids who are interested in being successful at both, it takes a lot of discipline, self-motivation and time management skills,” Ward said.
“We don’t treat kids any different as if they’re ‘some kind of special athlete.’ There’s a bunch of humble, hard-working folks who work here and try to pass that on to the kids who walk these halls. It’s just the environment of the school. The kids who make it out of here are definitely tattooed with it. That’s for sure,” he explained.
Stepan enjoyed tremendous success at Shattuck-St Mary’s and totaled 111 points in 60 games during his senior year while also representing the United States in youth tournaments. Derek ended up being selected 51st overall by Rangers in the 2008 NHL Draft.
Being drafted by the same professional team as your father can be a curse for some but this only fueled his desire. Brad Stepan wasn’t fortunate enough to make to the NHL but Derek was determined not only to achieve his dream of making the Rangers but also his ambitions on the international stage.
After further seasoning at the University of Wisconsin, Stepan represented the United States at the 2010 under-20 IIHF Championship in Saskatoon where he captained his country. Derek led the tournament in scoring with 11 points in seven tournament games and his inspirational play helped the Americans capture the gold medal over the home favorites Canada in overtime.
Stepan’s hard work paid off when he made the Rangers’ opening night roster to begin the 2010-11 season without having to play a single game in the minors. Every Ranger fan remembers his storybook debut where scored a hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres. More important than his rookie highlights was that he played in all 82 regular season games and didn’t let small first-year setbacks get the better of him.
According to Ward, an even-keeled mentality is something that Stepan always had in his makeup. “He’s a fun-loving, ‘smile on your face kid’ but when he needs to get ready to go – he certainly can. He’s got a very level head on his shoulders. Derek doesn’t get too high, too low or too rattled. I’m sure he’s gaining coach Tortorella’s respect as a player and a man. I think he’s learning that he can be trustworthy and play in a lot of different situations. For a second year player, that’s pretty good.”
Ward continued, “Guys get in trouble whether it’s in life or athletics if you try to be something that you’re not. It’s about getting better, watching what you’re doing and not making the same mistake twice. Derek is wise for his age and pays attention to everything going on around him. He’s a street-smart, life-smart athlete.”
That’s the key. As good of a night Stepan had Sunday against the Panthers, he won’t get overly-enamored with his own performance. He’ll see it as another small step forward in his progress.
“Derek has had success when he was here, the University of Wisconsin, with the world junior team and the Rangers because he’s a humble, hard-working kid from a small town in Minnesota. That’s who he is. He’s not a phony,” Ward beamed with pride.
“I’m glad he can hold that same persona in the big city. The bright lights of Manhattan certainly haven’t tainted the kid. He’s only been there two years but I don’t see it in him. That’s not who he is. He’s Derek Stepan, the kid who wears 21 with the twinkle in his eye. He’s a peach… he’s just a good kid,” Ward concluded.
Rangers fans – what do you make of Stepan’s development? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC. Thanks to Shattuck-St. Mary’s Director of Hockey Tom Ward for his time and input.