By Shane Frederick
---- — MANKATO — Zach Stepan wanted to play hockey with his Minnesota State teammates as soon as he possibly could.
Even if it meant traveling almost 6,500 miles on a path best traced over an Indiana Jones movie map, dealing with crying babies on the planes and getting little to no sleep for more than a day, he was going to get on the ice.
Copenhagen to Seattle to Reykjavik to Fairbanks.
Not exactly a hop, skip and a jump.
“That was just a long, grueling trip,” said Stepan, who had been playing for Team USA in the World Junior Championships in Sweden before rejoining the Mavericks. “It was probably over 24 hours either on a plane or in an airport. It was pretty hard on the body, but I didn't really feel it until the Sunday after the game, which was nice.”
The World Junior tournament was in Malmo, Sweden, which is located an the southern tip of that country, just across a narrow strait from Denmark.
After crossing 10 time zones to get from there to Alaska, Stepan's body clock had the 7 p.m. faceoff at about 5 a.m.
“My time periods were just so messed up,” he said. “I think the adrenaline got me through that game, but it hit me hard on the bus trip to Anchorge the next day.”
The Mavericks' top-scoring freshman had a goal in that game — a 6-4 MSU victory — was plus-2 and led all players with six shots on goal.
“He's a hockey player,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “He does that and comes back and makes an impact on the team right way. … He's a mentally tough kid.”
A versatile forward, Stepan is third on the team with six goals. The preseason pick as the WCHA's top rookie and the conference's lone representative at the World Juniors, he ranks seventh in scoring among league rookies.
He was considered Team USA's 13th forward and saw limited playing time, especially in the final two games. However, the Nashville Predators draft pick hopes to bring some of what he's learned to the second half of the Mavericks' schedule. The Mavericks host No. 2-ranked Ferris State today and Saturday.
“Personally, I think I could have fit in playing at that level, which was nice to see,” he said. “To be able to bring that back here and keep up that level of intensity is something I'm going to try to take away from it — to bring that level of intensity back to college.”
Last spring, Stepan decommitted from Ohio State after that school made a coaching change. He opted to go to Minnesota State instead and said he has no regrets about the decision.
“I'm so happy, so happy I got here,” he said. “Playing for coach Hastings is a delight because his passion's there."
Hastings is pretty pleased, too.
“He's a we guy not a me guy," Hastings said. "But with that, he's as confident in his abilities as anybody here, and he should be. … He's a unique player because of the entire package — his head, his want-to and his skill level. That allows him to go out and play the game many different ways.”