Chandler Stephenson left the red sweater dangling from a metal hook bracketed into a stall in the back corner of the dressing room, and when he cocked his head back and raked the mat of sweat-soaked, dirty blond hair away from his eyes, one of the Washington Capitals’ equipment assistants snatched it away.
“Hey Woody,” Stepenson called to Craig Leydig, who was winding up to toss Stephenson’s No. 18 into a laundry bin. “I want to keep that one.”
Stephenson didn’t have any clue what he’d do with the sweater, which he wore Thursday night in the Capitals’ 4-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, his first NHL game. Perhaps the 21-year-old would take it somewhere and have it framed, a keepsake from the night he had dreamt about since the first time he stepped on the ice back home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
In eight minutes and 43 seconds, a blur spanning nine fourth-line shifts, Stephenson had the time of his life. This was what he envisioned mere weeks ago, a tangible feeling when positive reinforcement and a dwindling number of bodies left him as one of the last players competing for a roster spot in training camp.
“You should think you can make this team,” coach Barry Trotz told Stephenson once the audition began, and so Stephenson did. He asserted himself by enhancing his offensive game, knowing he couldn’t veer from the gritty work ethic that got him there. He battled for pucks. He won draws. He accentuated his teammates.
It didn’t matter. In a move tied more to the Capitals’ accounting than to the center’s ability, Stephenson was sent packing the morning of the preseason finale, ticketed for the Hershey Bears. Over four preseason games, Stephenson proved to himself he could play. Whatever aspirations he had would have to wait.
“It was upsetting going that far and knowing how close you are,” Stephenson said, “but you’ve got to think about how close you are, and you’ve got to keep working. It’s right there.”
The minor-league stint lasted just one game. Following practice on Wednesday afternoon, Bears coach Troy Mann told Stephenson the two needed to speak in his office. There, Mann told him to pack his bags and head to Washington.
Details were fleeting. Stephenson didn’t know how long he’d be gone, or where he’d fit, or whether he’d play. He went to Washington that afternoon believing, from his limited time around Trotz, this wasn’t just some one-off opportunity. “Trotz doesn’t like to BS his words,” Stephenson remembered, finding comfort in his contrived clarity.
Once Sean Collins, who served as the Capitals’ fourth-line right wing the first two games, was reassigned on Thursday afternoon, Stephenson found at least one answer. He would face the Blackhawks that night.
“You look across and you’re seeing Jonathan Toews and [Patrick] Kane and the Stanley Cup champions for your first game, that sometimes can be a little bit overwhelming,” Trotz said. “He didn’t seem overwhelmed at all.”
The Capitals didn’t extend Stephenson a contract offer until last summer, two years after he was drafted, following a breakout season with his junior-league team, the Regina Pats.
One year with the Bears, Stephenson thought, was enough. A variety of factors will likely force him back to the minors at some point, but Stephenson intends to stay. For posterity’s sake, though, there was the matter of that sweater.
Leydig stopped, looked down at it and turned around. He handed it back to Stephenson, who accepted it with a wide grin, then put it back in his stall. Someday, it would be placed somewhere special, memorabilia from that one special night when it finally happened.
“This is my dream,” Stephenson said. “It has been since I had a stick. It’s obviously been a huge day, and I’m going to remember this forever.”
• Zac Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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