Brad Stepan no longer coaches his son, but the two still talk before and after almost every game.
The pregame conversations include a key piece of fatherly advice Brad gave from the moment Derek began playing Mite level hockey in Hastings, Minnesota.
"To this day, every time I talk to him before the game, I always tell him one thing, and that's to have fun," said Brad, who played in the OHL, IHL and was an NHL draft pick. "Every single time I hang that phone up, I tell him to have fun."
Derek, 30, is finishing his 10th season in the NHL. Fun never was an issue for him when it came to hockey.
"He had a hockey stick in his hands at all times," Brad said. "He had an unbelievable passion for the game. It was never me or his mom pushing him to do that. I didn't want to be that dad that pushed him into doing something that he didn't want to do. And I never had to do that with hockey."
Trish, Derek's mom, noted that when Derek was younger, Brad worked at a local arena, and Derek spent a lot of time just going to work with his dad.
"They liked to draw plays all of the time," she said. "That was their thing. 'This is the move. This is where you go,' that sort of thing. They'd draw it on one of those white hockey boards."
The Coyotes' alternate captain developed a genuine love for hockey as a youngster, which, for a Minnesotan, is far from unique. His father made sure it wasn't an exclusive experience.
"I grew up in a hockey environment," Derek said. "But more importantly, I also played other sports. I'm not super athletic. I wasn't very good at other sports, but my dad made sure that experiencing them was important. I think that translates, too, into how you develop as a person."
Derek later attended Shattuck St. Mary's, a preparatory boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, known for its elite hockey program.
"He knew that if he wanted to really take this thing to the next level, that Shattuck was the perfect spot," Brad said.
"He knew he had to live on his own. He had to grow up. School work was of the utmost importance at Shattuck. I think it was a turning point for Derek to really understand … you know what, I've really got a chance to play college hockey, and beyond."
Despite leaving home at high school age, Derek always called upon the foundation set by his father.
"My dad instilled core beliefs in me that allowed me to mature at a very young age. He demanded things from me, and he pushed me.
"He's given me so many things that I can lean on. One of the biggest things is, and through my entire career, he's done a good job of encouraging me to 'act like I've been there before.' If you want to be a really good player, act like you've been there before and learn from your mistakes. And when you have success, don't allow your roller coaster to go too high, and don't allow your roller coaster to go too low. 'Act like you've been there before' is probably the one I lean on the most."
Derek's true emergence came during the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship tournament. He was captain of Team USA, won a gold medal and led the tournament in scoring with 15 points.
"I think that, for me as a dad, was probably the proudest moment, 100 percent," his father said. "I believe that was the next step for Derek in really becoming a leader. Taking that team to a World Championship, and winning it, and having such a big role offensively. "He was just a young man growing up. He understood that he could be a leader."
Shortly thereafter, Derek made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers, coincidentally the team that drafted his father in 1985.
"It was really cool to be drafted by the Rangers," Derek said. "Obviously, with the history of my dad being with them, it's a great story for us to continue to talk about, a really special moment."
"When he got that call, obviously having it be the New York Rangers was a huge deal," said Brad who never reached the NHL. "To this day, Derek and I are the only father/son combination to ever don that jersey, which is a crazy deal. Obviously, the Rangers being an Original 6 team, it's pretty cool. Draft day was a big day."
Through everything, there's one memory that stands out to Derek.
It goes back to a Peewee-level playoff game in Minnesota. Brad was the coach.
"Our little Hastings town, we made it to the state tournament," Derek said. "But, before we got to the state tournament, we played in our district tournament. Me and one of my really close buddies, Charlie, we were linemates. We had a lot of success. But, that game, we had a rough start. During that break, [Dad] came in, and as 'PG' as I can say it, he lit a fire … Well, let's just say, he fired us up. I'll never forget it. Me and my buddy Charlie, the two of us were on the brink of tears, that's how hard he chewed into us. I think we both had hat tricks in the second and third periods. We went on to win the game.
"The two of us, me and Charlie, always still talk about that moment. We always talk about that game."
Their father-son relationship these days involves fewer X's and O's -- or fiery speeches -- but the sport still bonds.
"We talk after almost every single [one of his] games," Brad said. "He'll call me before he gets on the bus, or before he leaves for home from the rink. I think we have a really strong bond, that he respects me. He knows I've been there. I certainly didn't get as far as Derek has, but I do think he heeds my advice. He takes some of it, and some of it he probably brushes off."
But as a father he takes other pride, too, in his son.
"Watching him grow up and be the dad that he is today," Brad said. "He is an amazing father. If there's anything I can say, it's what kind of father he's become to his two children. And husband, to his wife Stephanie. He's an amazing dad and an amazing husband.''
Derek's mother sees it, too.
"Well, he's a really good dad and a great husband," she said. "He loves to play with the kids. A lot of times after the games, we rush out of the arena because he's just anxious to get home, so he can get up in the morning with the kids after a game night. That always makes me so proud."
Added Brad: "And, the brother that he is. He and his sister, Josie, have an unbelievable relationship. He treats his sister like gold. They just have an unbelievable relationship, and I'm so proud that he's been such a good brother, too."
Derek said that fatherhood has its own challenges and rewards.
"You always think that you're going to be able to figure out how to be the dad," he said. "It seems it's always changing, the way you have success as a father. You can't get set in your ways, because your kids grow up so quick. I'm still learning a lot. I'm still trying to push everything I can to be a great dad, and I hope that I am, at times, for the kids. It's something I've really enjoyed, I really love being a dad, it's been a lot of fun for me so far."
"When Derek is smiling, things are going well," Brad said. "He's got a great personality, and that's when I know he's having fun. He'd do anything for those kids before anything else. Those kids come first."
And that, indeed, calls for a smile.
Photos Courtesy: Brad Stepan