All families have different ways of celebrating the holidays.
The Stepan family celebrates with Gold Medals and World Junior Championships.
Three years after watching his cousin, Derek Stepan, Minnesota State University freshman forward Zach Stepan will try to follow in his footsteps — first by making the United States team for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Tournament, then by going there and winning it.
Derek, now a member of the New York Rangers, played for the U.S. on the 2010 World Junior Team, the first American team since 2004 and just the second overall to ever win Gold at the tournament (the tournament became official for the first time in 1977).
After going 27 years without winning the tournament, then going six years between wins in 2004 and 2010, the U.S. won it again in 2013. This year’s tournament, which begins Dec. 26, will be held in Malmo, Sweden.
First, Team USA must decide on its final roster, something that will be hashed out as the team holds its training camp this week at Mariucci Arena.
It’s not the first step of the process for Stepan as he tries to become the second member of his family to bring home a Gold Medal, but it is perhaps the most important.
The process began last summer at several initiation camps, as Team USA personnel were first able to get a look at prospects on the ice. After that, a player’s body of work is evaluated before coming to Minneapolis this week for one final look. The Team USA's preliminary roster has 29 names on it. By the time the team goes to Sweden next week, it will likely have closer to 23.
Stepan’s biggest showcase will come, coincidentally, in his home building Tuesday when the U.S. team has an exhibition against Minnesota State at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato.
“I really don’t know if there’s an explanation for it,” Stepan said. “It’s going to be weird, standing on the other side, watching the light show for my team. But right now, I’m trying to play for USA, so I gotta go out there and play for them rather than the Mavs.”
The first step for Stepan to becoming one of the players chosen for this year’s team has already been cleared. After sustaining an upper-body injury early in the season, an ailment that cost him four games, the forward had to prove to USA's brass that he was fully healthy. Despite a near disastrous check from behind that knocked Stepan from MSU’s game against Alabama-Huntsville less that 24 hours before his arrival at camp, he is fully recovered and ready to go.
Team USA’s initial roster was released Dec. 5 and had 26 players on it. Stepan wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until Dec. 10 that Stepan was one of three final additions that would be invited to camp this week to compete for a spot.
“I’ve talked to the players individually, they’re not player 16, player 17 and defenseman nine,” U.S. General Manager Jim Johannson said. “They all had injuries they needed to come back from we wanted to make sure this was good for Zach and he was healthy and ready to go.”
Among the four games he missed with MSU early in the season was a non-conference at Mariucci Arena against the Gophers, coached by Don Lucia, the same man who will lead the U.S. in the World Junior Championships this year. It was a missed opportunity for Stepan on a couple of fronts.
“I just wanted to play the UofM,” Stepan said. “They’re such a good hockey team and I wanted to be a part of the squad and go out there and compete against them. It was hard to watch on TV.”
Playing Minnesota would have also given Stepan a chance to audition live for Lucia, in hopes of making this team.
“It was in the back of my head, the auditioning part,” Stepan said. "But I’m here now and now is my time to audition for it.”
But while he fell short there, Stepan’s reputation has far exceeded anything he could have done to impress Lucia.
“Every single coach he has played for has said, ‘You’re going to love this guy,’” Johannson said. “He does whatever you ask him to do and he can do any of the roles.”
Indeed, it’s Stepan’s versatility that may assist him most in his quest to make the team.
“Penalty kill, power play, play the first minute of a period, play the end of a period, he’s a guy that coaches trust and he’s a smart hockey player,” Johannson said. "For him, here, he needs to show all of those intangibles.”
Stepan said he takes pride in being able to play any number of roles, something that was demanded of him first at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, and now by Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings, a former Lucia assistant with the Gophers.
“[Shattuck] Coach [Tom] Ward makes you be a versatile player,” Stepan said. “It just depends on your mindset and whether you want to buy in.”
Stepan’s mindset to make the U.S. team began three years ago listening to Derek talk about his experience in this tournament. Zach got to hold Derek’s gold medal and hopes he can someday soon do the same with his own.
“Every guy is going to say he loved winning a gold medal,” Stepan said. “But he told me he loved his experience, just being around the guys. Even though it’s over Christmas, to be able to be around good hockey players and good guys, to go out and battle for something… There’s no where I’d rather be.”