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Back where it all began

Alexander Steen returns to Winnipeg, a city where he spent his entire childhood, to play in 1,000th NHL game

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

Alexander Steen isn't really the superstitious type, but he will get dressed for his 1,000th game on Saturday nearly the exact same way he has for the 999 games that came before it.

He'll pull a pair of Manchester City F.C. socks over his feet first, then put on his left skate, then right skate and lace them both up - left before right. Then it's left shin pad, right shin pad, left elbow pad, right elbow pad. Finally, he pulls his shoulder pads over his head and slides his arms in - left before right, of course - then pulls his jersey over his head, brushes his hand through his hair to slick it back, positions his helmet squarely on top, grabs his stick and off he goes.

"When I was a kid, my parents would put my left stuff on first, so I still keep that routine. I always go left to right," Steen told stlouisblues.com. "But if one time I slide my right elbow pad on before my left, it doesn't freak me out.

"My dad tried to teach me not to be superstitious," he added. "There are so many things that can happen to throw you off as far as timing or travel - maybe the game gets delayed or your pregame meal isn't ready in time. He always said not to have any superstitions that can throw you off, instead just keep the same routines - there's a difference. And when you're playing well, you definitely keep those routines."

A CAREER IN PHOTOS: ALEXANDER STEEN'S 1,000 GAMES

The rituals have worked out just fine for the 35-year-old Steen, who was born in Winnipeg but has always spent most of his summers in Sweden.

On Saturday, Steen will become the 30th active player in the NHL to play in 1,000 games and just the 13th player in history to do it while wearing the Blue Note. As luck would have it, he will play his milestone game in Winnipeg, a city where the Steen name is already legendary, though more for his father, Thomas, than for him.

"It's funny how things work out," Steen said. "I mean with all the injuries I've had and all the games you play, and add to it that Winnipeg didn't have a team for the majority of my hockey career - the fact that my 1,000th game falls on a day when we're back in Winnipeg to play the Jets, it's crazy."

 

WINNIPEG JETS

Growing up with a famous hockey-playing dad was actually pretty normal, Steen recalls.

"I didn't see my dad as any different," he said. "There were times he would sign autographs for people, but other than that, it was pretty standard growing up."

But he admits being Thomas Steen's son did come with a few perks.

For one, he got to hang out around the locker room at the old Winnipeg Arena and met a lot of his dad's teammates, guys like Phil Housley, Teppo Numminen, Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhamnov, Teemu Selanne and Shane Doan. Sometimes, Jets Assistant Coach Andy Murray would bring his son, Brady, to the rink, giving Alexander someone to skate and shoot pucks with when the Jets finished up their practice.

Video: Steens bond over departure of Jets

"At the time, I was just being a kid and you don't grasp how fortunate you were," Alexander said of growing up around an NHL team. "As I grew older, I realized how lucky I was to see these guys firsthand, how great they were to me. They showed me a lot - the on-ice stuff and everything they did, but also the professionalism off the ice. I never really had just one idol growing up - I had many. I looked up to my father, but I was also able to pick things up from each guy that was around back in those days. It was pretty special."

In 1996, the Jets franchise relocated and became the Phoenix Coyotes. It was an enormous blow for Winnipeg - a city so passionate about its hockey - and it also was the last time Thomas Steen would suit up in the National Hockey League. After a 14-year career that spanned 950 games - all with the Jets - Thomas moved his family to Germany for three years to finish out his professional career. After that, he returned to his native Sweden so Alexander could play in prestigious hockey tournaments with some of the best Swedish players in his age group.

"Right then, that's when I knew it," Alexander said. "That's when I knew if I put the work in, maybe I could make something of this hockey thing."

 

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Steen remembers going to the 2002 NHL Draft in Toronto hoping for one of two potential outcomes.

1. Get drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes. Sure, they weren't the Winnipeg Jets anymore, but he did feel somewhat of a connection to the organization. He knew it better than any of the League's 29 other franchises, and some of his father's teammates, like Numminen and Doan, were still playing there.

2. Get drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs were one of the most popular teams in the sport, and Toronto always had a rabid fan base. And for Steen, having spent the first 11 years of his life living in Canada, Toronto felt pretty close to home.

With the 24th overall pick in 2002, the Maple Leafs selected Steen.

"It was incredible," Steen remembered. "Tie Domi was in Winnipeg when my dad played there but was with the Maple Leafs when I arrived, so I knew him. They had guys I grew up watching, and I remember sitting on the bench a few times through that first half of the season in awe of everything. I was very honored to be on that bench and wearing a Leafs jersey. It was a great organization, a great coaching staff and guys like Wade Belak, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Mats Sundin, Jeff O'Neill, they helped me get my feet wet and made sure I got in the right way. Curtis Joseph was there for a bit, Eddie Belfour, Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft - we had a lot of great guys playing there. It was a special time, for sure."

Steen played 253 games with the Maple Leafs, posting 50 goals and 76 assists (126 points) in four seasons, but the club failed to reach the playoffs in each of those four years.

Change was coming. Steen could sense it.


ST. LOUIS BLUES

Just before Thanksgiving in 2008, Steen was told he had been traded, along with teammate Carlo Colaiacovo, to the St. Louis Blues.

Because the NHL schedule featured a heavy conference schedule back then, Steen recalls playing in St. Louis only once in his four seasons with the Maple Leafs. He knew nothing about the city or what the future held for him there, so he turned to Google for answers.

The internet search engine told him that the Anheuser-Busch brewery was located there, as was the Gateway Arch. The St. Louis Blues ranked last in the Western Conference despite a roster that featured Paul Kariya, Andy McDonald, Barret Jackman, Eric Brewer and Manny Legace. T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund were the new kids on the block, David Backes was still playing for the American Hockey League affiliate Peoria Rivermen and Alex Pietrangelo played in just eight games before being deemed unready for the NHL and was sent back to juniors for more seasoning.

Video: Steen becomes 13th Blue to play in 1,000th game

"It's going to be up to Alex Steen to prove to our coaches that he can play another notch," Blues President John Davidson said of acquiring Steen. "But we think he's got something there that can be proved."

The Blues would surge to the playoffs that season, making an unlikely run in the second half of the year. It would all come crashing down quickly though as the Vancouver Canucks swept the club in the first round of the playoffs.

"It was a pretty cool way to come into St. Louis," Steen said. "To see the city and the atmosphere and all the fans in the community and all the support we got during that run, it was an extremely fun year despite the ending."

Steen fell in love with the city quickly. He attached himself to the Blues Alumni and he thrived in a Top-6 role that had alluded him with the Maple Leafs. He set new career highs in goals (33), assists (40) and points (64) while wearing the Blue Note and helped guide the team through some good and some not-so-good seasons.

Somewhere in that time frame, he went from a young guy trying to find his way to a veteran leader in the locker room.

"He's kind of like the dad of the group," teammate Oskar Sundqvist said with a laugh yet also with a hint of seriousness. "He takes care of everyone. If you've got a problem, whether it's hockey-related or not, you can always go to him and he always helps you. Anytime I need something, he's the first guy I'm calling."

"He's one of the best guys I've ever met," linemate Tyler Bozak added. "He's a guy that has your back in every situation. You're not going to find a better teammate out there."

Through ups and downs and everything in between, Steen has been a Blue for more than a decade now.

"I've been extremely fortunate," he said. "It's an unbelievable organization and community, and St. Louis has become my home. Coming here I didn't know at all what the future would hold for me, but it's been awesome. When it's all said and done, the thing I'll remember most is the fans, the community and how connected they've been with our hockey club, and also the teammates and the friendships I've made. The best friends I have in life are the guys I have in this room."


WINNING IT ALL

Midway through last season, somewhere around the time when the Blues were dead-last in the NHL, then-Interim Head Coach Craig Berube approached Steen with the idea of playing on the fourth line with Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev.

It was a role the Blues needed him to fill, one that would set the tone as the Blues tried to climb back into the playoff race. Eventually, Barbashev-Sundqvist-Steen became one of the team's most consistent and effective lines in the club's first run to the Stanley Cup Final in 49 years.

For some players, swallowing their pride and accepting fewer minutes might be difficult to accept, but not for Steen. He never complained once.

"He's a team-first guy. He wants to do anything he can to help the team, wherever it may have him in the lineup or what role he's playing," Bozak said. "To be honest, that line last year is a huge reason why we won. They had a lot of tough matchups, created a lot of energy for us and scored some big goals. He was a huge part of that."

"We knew we had an amazing opportunity to go deep and make a run at it," Steen said. "That line we put together, there was so much energy on it and there was so much excitement. We communicated on the bench about what we thought the team needed from us. When there were moments where the momentum needed to shift right now, we found a way to do it. We took a lot of pride in that role and in the end, it was such a fantastic experience. The journey is what makes it that much more sweet."

That journey ended with Steen hoisting the Stanley Cup on the ice at TD Garden in Boston while bearing a huge, toothless hockey player grin that said everything. For Steen, emotions were high. He thought about the guys that came before him - Bob and Barclay Plager, Garry Unger, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Kelly Chase - guys that had poured everything into trying to bring a Stanley Cup to St. Louis but ultimately fell short. He thought about the 11 years he had personally invested into that very same goal. And he thought about his dad, who played 14 seasons in the NHL and never got to hoist the Cup. This was Alexander's 14th season in the League, too.

"I watched how much my father poured into the city and the team and into his teammates when he played," Alexander said. "I think it's important those things continue to be remembered and paid forward. There are so many things the guys before us have done. They are a big reason why the city is so connected to the hockey club. We won with our identity and our culture and our team, we did it our way. But it's important to me that our connection to the past stays strong."


1,000 GAMES

Hockey is nothing if not a sport full of clichès.

Take it one shift at a time. Get pucks deep. Play a full 60 minutes. It's just another game.

But even Steen, who has used plenty of those clichès before, admits that Saturday isn't just another game. Not really.

"Beforehand, it's going to feel different," Steen said. "It's going to be a special day for me and my family, and I'm sure I'll be a little excited and anxious to get going. But once it does get going, I'm hoping it will feel like just another game. I'm more comfortable that way."

Steen will join a small list of big names to play their 1,000th game while wearing the Blue Note - Tkachuk, MacInnis, Jay Bouwmeester, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight and Jimmy Roberts among them.

A sizeable group of friends and family will be in attendance Saturday in Winnipeg, including his dad - who coincidentally won tickets to Saturday's game in a golf tournament last summer.

"We're ready," Thomas Steen said. "Everybody's coming, family and a bunch of friends. And there's a lot of friends who got tickets on their own for this game."

The Blues will honor Steen in front of the home crowd before the Feb. 6 game in St. Louis.

"He's really glued us together and made us the team we are," Sundqvist said. "I'm really happy to be able to say when I finish my career that I played with Alexander Steen."

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