New York Rangers center Derek Stepan sat down to take part in an exclusive interview with XN Sports writer Sean Hartnett. In this one-on-one, Stepan speaks of his pride of being counted on as dressing room leader, his Minnesotan roots, his love of the Dave Matthews Band, and how he became a Knicks fan.
On Oct. 6, 2014, the Rangers named Stepan as one of the team’s four rotating alternate captains. Since bursting on the scene with a debut hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 9, 2010, Stepan has established himself as a go-to guy on the ice and in the dressing room.
“Being an alternate captain is a tremendous honor,” Stepan said. “More importantly, the fact that the guys in the room come to me is something that I’m grateful for. I’m blessed to be able to have the opportunity to help guys. Moving forward, I’d just like to continue to try to help as much as possible.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault recognizes Stepan’s dedicated nature.
“He’s a real smart player that prepares himself real well,” Vigneault said earlier this month. “He holds himself very accountable to his game. He evaluates his game well. He’s a young player that’s only going to get better.”
Accountable is the adjective sums up Stepan perfectly. Last playoffs, Stepan suffered a broken jaw in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He miraculously returned for Game 5 after undergoing surgery and proceeded to suit up for the remainder of the playoffs, logging huge minute totals while subsiding on a liquid diet. The 24-year-old center played above 27 minutes in two Stanley Cup Final games.
Stepan’s rough luck continued this summer when he crumpled to the ice during training camp conditioning drills. A fractured fibula would cost Stepan the first 12 games of the new season. Once he made his season debut in Toronto on Nov. 8, Stepan didn’t show any signs of rust. In fact, he’s enjoying the finest season of his five-year career.
Through 27 games, Stepan has been a point-per-game player. He’s scored six goals and recorded 21 assists. Vigneault has leaned on Stepan as a key contributor in all situations.
“Ever since Step came back in our lineup, he’s obviously made a difference and a big impact,” Vigneault said. “He’s one of the players that we use five-on-five, power play, and penalty kill. I’m not big on using the same guys on the power play and penalty killing. Both him and Nasher are very, very efficient on both. I have to use them because they’re that efficient.”
Unlike most NHLers, Stepan’s inspiration came from watching the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers rather than NHL superstars. His first taste of a big arena atmosphere was his visits to Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, M.N.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Stepan said. “I used to watch the Golden Gophers quite a bit. Growing up in Minnesota, we didn’t have the North Stars or the Wild at the time. It was the Gophers, Friday and Saturday. Mariucci Arena my first atmosphere of seeing a full building.
“You watched a lot of college hockey. There wasn’t much pro hockey on TV. Occasionally, you’d get an NHL game on ESPN. I only watched small amounts of pro hockey. If it was Detroit versus Colorado, I knew Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. If you were to go down the list, you’d start to lose me once the big names dropped off.”
Stepan looked to a number of locals from his hometown of Hastings, M.N. who had made the jump from high school barns to 10,000-seat Mariucci Arena.
“Ben Tharp, Jeff Taffe and Dan Welch all went to the state championship,” Stepan said. “All those guys were from Hastings, so I grew up watching them in high school and continued watching them when they went to the Gophers. Obviously, Thomas Vanek was fun to watch.”
Stepan ended up spending two seasons at the rival University of Wisconsin, where he teamed with eventual Rangers teammate Ryan McDonagh.
“Obviously, I ended up going to the better school,” Stepan said with a chuckle.
Now settled in Manhattan, Stepan prefers the comforts of home instead of the bright lights.
“I’m a big-time homebody,” Stepan said. “When I’m home during the season, I like to be home. My wife does a good job of cooking. I try as much as I can to be home.”
Stepan tied the knot with longtime girlfriend Stephanie on Aug. 9, 2014. There’s few things Stepan enjoys more than sampling his wife’s cooking. Tater tot hot dish is a Minnesota staple that the Stepans have brought with them from the Great Lakes to the Big Apple.
“She loves Pinterest and trying stuff she sees on there,” Stepan said. “She has a lot of good dishes. I like tater tot hotdish. It’s a Minnesota thing – cream of mushroom soup, green beans, tater tots and ground beef. You put it in a pan, you bake it, put a little ketchup on it. It’s awesome.
“She makes these great hot beef sandwiches. She’ll put roast beef in a crock pot all day. You put it in a sandwich and cover it in gravy. She does everything well – pastas and chicken dishes.”
When Stepan does go out on the town, he’s big on finding sushi spots. Nobu and Tao ranks as two of his favorite destinations.
“If I’m going to go out, I’m not very picky,” Stepan said. “I’m pretty open to anything. You want to try new stuff because there’s so many options in the city. If I have some time off, I love checking out some of my favorite sushi spots in the city. Nobu and Tao are two places that Stephanie and I love. We’ll do steakhouses too. We’ll mix it up.”
Sushi and steakhouses aren’t the only things Stepan has become attached to in New York. He’s become a big fan of the Knicks.
“To be honest, I wasn’t much of a basketball fan growing up,” Stepan said. “I didn’t go to any T’Wolves games. Since I’ve been in New York, I’ve become a Knicks fan. I’ve been converted.”
Despite the Knicks’ miserable 5-35 record, Stepan has become fascinated with the game.
“My wife’s family is a big basketball family,” Stepan said. “Her brother played at Kansas State. They love basketball. We try to get to a Knicks game at least once or twice a year. We haven’t been able to make one yet this year with me being hurt.
“You watch it on TV and it’s incredible. When you’re able to go to a game and see it live, you realize just how athletic they are. It seems simple, throw it in hoop. The things they do on the court is absolutely amazing. The speed the do it and the way they’re able to get up to that rim – it’s incredible.”
Stepan has described himself as an avid fan of Glee. That being said, he prefers country and jam rock. He and Stephanie would make the annual pilgrimage to Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, W.I. to see the Dave Matthews Band.
“I’ve only been to a handful of concerts in the city,” Stepan said. “In the summer, we’ll go to a country concert or try to see Dave Matthews Band. We used to go see Dave every summer at Alpine Valley before it was sold. Dave no longer goes there. I really enjoy seeing Dave. He’s probably one of my favorite concerts. If I’m going to put the iPod on, it’s probably going to be Dave.”
Stepan used to throw on the headphones when he was younger. Nowadays, he’s all business.
“I don’t do headphones,” Stepan said. “I used to do headphones when I was younger. Now, I listen to whatever the team is listening to. I like interacting with guys. It helps kill time before a game.”
It’s been a sensational season for Step. His wholehearted commitment and major contributions have been crucial to the Rangers’ success. The Blueshirts have won 13 of 14 games ahead of Tuesday night’s much-anticipated rivalry clash with the Islanders.