For Derek Stepan, the road to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan from Madison, Wisconsin included a brief pit stop in Grand Forks, North Dakota where Team USA convened for its selection camp prior to the 2010 WJC. Since then, the group has gelled into a speedy, aggressive fore-checking team that will play for a gold medal against Team Canada.
Stepan, drafted by the New York Rangers in the second round at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, is the Team USA captain. Through six games, he leads the team with three goals and nine assists. The jovial, upbeat and well-spoken 19-year-old is visible proof that the pressures at this international tournament are not necessarily so over-the-top. Stepan makes no bones that he is fully enjoying the experience while playing in front of sell out crowds at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon.
A sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Stepan has played in front of large crowds before, occasionally running in the neighbourhood of 12,000 fans at the Kohl Center on campus. In Saskatoon, the numbers are reaching 14,000 to 15,000 during the medal round. And in February, the Badgers will host the Michigan Wolverines at the Culver’s Camp Randall Stadium Outdoor Classic. The venue has a seating capacity for football of more that 80,000.
Last season with Wisconsin, Stepan played 40 games, collecting nine goals and 24 assists. Through 18 games this year, the 6-0, 180-pound forward had scored five goals and 17 assists prior to the WJC. A freshman last season, Stepan is beginning to be looked upon by the younger players for leadership and advice. One such player this year is defenseman Justin Schultz, an Anaheim Ducks‘ prospect who played in Canada for the Westside Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League before earning a scholarship at UW.
Also joining Stepan at the WJC from the Badgers are defensemen Jake Gardiner (ANA) and John Ramage (2010). All told, there are seven players with Team USA that compete with NCAA teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Also on the Team USA roster are fellow New York Rangers prospects Ryan Bourque and Chris Kreider. Forward Roman Horak of the WHL‘s Chilliwack Bruins is also on the Rangers’ radar and played at the WJC for the Czech Republic.
For his part, Stepan continues to exude enthusiasm here in Saskatoon, excited to be part of the current Team USA program. The championship game goes Tuesday night, with Team USA looking for its first gold medal since defeating Team Canada at the 2004 WJC in Helsinki, Finland. Since then, Canada has won five consecutive WJC titles. On New Year’s Eve in preliminary round play, Team USA probably deserved a better fate, dropping a 5-4 shootout decision to Team Canada. In the semi-final, Team USA scored three third period goals, handing pre-tournament favourite Sweden a 5-2 defeat, relegating the Swedes to the bronze medal game against the upstart team from Switzerland.