Hartnett: Ranger ‘Blood Brothers’ McDonagh, Stepan Pack Their Bags For Sochi
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By Sean Hartnett
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Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan are a pair of long-time friends whose hockey careers blossomed alongside one another in college, Team USA orientation camps, international competition and for four years under the bright spotlight of Madison Square Garden as Rangers teammates.
Away from the ice, McDonagh and Stepan are a pair of humble, laid-back Minnesotan kids who room together on road trips.
Don’t let their folksy Midwestern charm fool you — these guys are ultra-competitive at everything they do.
That competitive fire spills into golf outings, fantasy football matchups, board games and video games. You name it, Stepan or McDonagh can’t stand losing to one another.
McDonagh was a lock all along to make the U.S. Olympic roster. The same couldn’t be said about Stepan, who admitted in mid-December that he was “a bubble guy.”
McDonagh was relieved to see Stepan named to the 25-man roster. The pair have pushed each other in practices for six years — from the University of Wisconsin practice rink, Rangers practices in Tarrytown and MSG, to Slovakia during the IIHF World Championship, to the Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, where Olympic orientation was held in August.
That hard work has paid off as the two “blood brothers” from Minnesota will be on the plane to Sochi.
“We were both pushing for each other, and I’m really happy that we’re both going to get this opportunity,” McDonagh said during a Wednesday conference call. “We’ve seen each other play at World Juniors and were able to play at the World Championships together. Now we’re playing on the biggest world stage, the Olympic stage, and hopefully accomplish something special.”
Stepan said he was on pins and needles as the names of the U.S. Olympians were announced one by one at Michigan Stadium following the 2014 Winter Classic on.
Finally, Stepan saw a youth hockey player wearing a “STEPAN 12″ jersey. That was the moment he could breathe easy. The 23-year-old said that it was “a pretty cool way to find out” that he was going to Sochi.
“I found out when then kids were on the ice,” Stepan said. “I hadn’t heard anything yet, so I was kind of starting to think that I wasn’t going to be there,” Stepan said. “As I was watching the kids, I wasn’t really sure. But it was a pretty cool way to find out. It’s a great honor. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be there or not, and it’s something I’m very grateful for.”
McDonagh remembers watching the 2010 Vancouver Olympics on TV. In his head, McDonagh said he would imagine what it would be like to one day suit up for his country on the biggest stage.
“It’s an honor to be a part of the team,” said McDonagh. “I remember watching the 2010 one and just imagining what it would be like to play in the Olympics and represent your country. Now I have that opportunity and I will try and do the best with it.”
While Rangers captain Ryan Callahan is assured of his spot in the U.S. lineup, some recent lineup projections have both McDonagh and Stepan on the outside looking in as potential scratches when the Olympics get underway.
It would be hard to imagine McDonagh not being one of the six dressed defenseman, but Stepan is pretty much in competition with Colorado Avalanche forward Paul Stastny for fourth line center.
Barring an injury to Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler or David Backes, Stepan will have to play his best hockey in the weeks leading up to Sochi to ensure he’ll be one of the 12 forwards dressed when the United States opens preliminary round play against Slovakia on Feb. 13.
Stepan can only control what’s in front of him, which is playing his absolute best for the Rangers until he boards the plane to Sochi.
“It’s hard not to think about it,” Stepan said. “But at the same time, you try your best to just focus on what you have in front of you that night and try to play those games. That’s going to help you take steps toward the Olympic stage.”
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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