Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey isn’t the only Nashville Predators prospect hoping to bring his college team a national title next season. Playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Minnesota State doesn’t get the same attention as teams in the north east, but after last season’s performance, they definitely deserve to be talked about more often. Zach Stepan will be entering his third season with the Mavericks this fall, and they look to repeat a stellar performance which had them finishing first in the WCHA along with the number one overall seed in the Frozen Four tournament. While the Mavericks suffered an upset loss in the first round, it was still an outstanding season for Stepan and Minnesota State. What’s more important for the success of the program is that head coach Mike Hastings agreed to an eight year contact earlier in July. Over the past three seasons, Hastings has lead Minnesota State to the most victories in Division I men’s hockey than any other school. That kind of consistency is what will continue to help Stepan in his development.
“I didn’t really have a doubt that he’d want to come back,” said Stepan. “We’ve been on the high rise the last couple of years, but he’s an unbelievable coach and guy. I’m happy that I ended up falling into Mankato because he’s making me a better hockey player.”
As the WCHA continues to grow with new teams and establish itself as a conference, teams are emerging as national power houses. Two WCHA teams were represented in the Frozen Four this past season, Minnesota State and Michigan Tech. According to Stepan, the WCHA is building itself different from other conferences, but that’s what is helping them become successful.
“I think this year especially was a really good year just from the top standpoint,” said Stepan. “The best part about it is that no one would have seen it coming. The thing about the WCHA is that they’re starting to take older and older guys and more veteran players rather than some of the bigger schools that sometimes take a lot of younger guys right out of high school. Juniors is also another big step. I loved to play in juniors. I’m glad I did. It helps you get ready for the next level. That’s what our league is all about. We may not be the most skilled league altogether, but the teams know how to work together. I can say that for Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Fairbanks is going to be a powerhouse, too. No one would ever guess, but that’s the way it is nowadays.”
For those that may not know, the WCHA spans largest range out of any college hockey conference. With teams located in Alabama, Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, immense travel is something all teams have to deal with in the season. There is also much talk of the newly Division I Arizona State joining the WCHA as well, adding even more travel for teams. For the players though, travel gives them a great opportunity to build camaraderie with their teammates.
“Alaska is a far ways away,” said Stepan. “You’re on the road a lot. For us, we played 10 weeks in a row and our first four or something were on the road. Just being in the hotel and being with the guys all the time builds the camaraderie. It helps a lot. At our school, we’re back training already and everyone is going to spend almost all summer together. That’s how you build friendship. The new guys come in and you welcome them into your family, and you’re able to just skyrocket once the season starts.”
One of the things that helps Stepan in the offseason is attending Nashville Predators development camp. Now that he’s an upperclassman, it’s all about becoming a leader, whether it’s at development camp or back at Minnesota State. When it comes to training, mindset is the key to any challenge they may face.
“It helps just because some guys may be a little timid with what’s going on,” said Stepan on being a leader at Predators development camp. “It’s not bad. Skating test was pretty hard obviously, but the best way to look at it is simple. It’s six minutes long. Some guys don’t think of it like that. You’re only really working for three out of the six minutes, and you just have to start looking at it from that standpoint other than looking at the guys that are done. You just have to try to find the bright situation of everything when you’re out here. There aren’t really any dark sides that I can find, you know.”
If anything is certain for the college players in Nashville’s prospect pool, it’s that the organization has made good choices in the past few years. They have players on some of the best teams in the country that are now consistently competing for national championships. That will only bode well for their competitiveness once they turn pro in the next couple of seasons. Having players that have gone through championship runs, even in college or junior, helps solidify the caliber of players in the system. For Stepan, if he can help his team to a title, it’ll not only bode well to have a champion in the prospect pool, but it’ll continue help the WCHA gain prominence and respect from the rest of the college hockey world.
Photo Credit: Kristen Jerkins