Steckel Steps Up Just in Time to Save Capitals' Season

David Steckel looks to control the puck during Monday's pivotal Game 6 win in Pittsburgh.
David Steckel looks to control the puck during Monday's pivotal Game 6 win in Pittsburgh. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Important chunks of David Steckel's life gathered around the 65-inch, high-definition television in the family room of Curt and Ellen Steckel on Monday night. The grade-school coach's wife, and childhood friends who remembered a bamboo-shoot skinny kid saying he was going to play in the National Hockey League no matter what.

When the pride of West Bend, Wis., deflected the puck into the net in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, pandemonium naturally consumed the dozen euphoric souls in his parents' family room.

The people who saw him put on his first pair of skates -- yes, figure skates -- at 2 years old. Who watched him play his first hockey on outdoor ice before making treks to Waupun and Beaver Dam as he got older and better, and then to Chicago and Detroit in grade school, where the U.S. junior national coaches saw him play and the dream began to morph into something tangible.

On to Ohio State, where he starred for four years, and three years of minor league dues.

Those wartime ration soap bars at Holiday Inns. Six- and seven-hour bus rides.

He ended up in Manchester, N.H., where his coach, Bruce Boudreau, began to develop real affection for a player he knew wasn't the best skater but was so determined to do anything he could to play in the NHL.

Winning faceoffs, because that's what the Team USA coaches told Steckel could help him stay on the ice at the end of a game. Checking the other team's center. Penalty-killing, using his pterodactyl wingspan to poke away pucks when the other team's best offensive players had one-man and sometimes two-man advantages -- anything to stick with the big club.

"The dark side of hockey," Brooks Laich, also his teammate in Hershey, was saying yesterday, the morning after Steckel's goal made practice and a Game 7 tonight at Verizon Center possible. "Everyone wants to score goals, but you need guys like Stecks to do the other things. So to see him get one, well, you're just so glad."

Boudreau, as much Steckel's rabbi as his coach in the NHL, told General Manager George McPhee not to just take a flyer on him when Steckel wasn't re-signed by the club. "I told him he will play [in the NHL] and he'd be a good sign."

"Just to see the look on his face was very rewarding," Boudreau said yesterday. "I know his parents very well and they must have been excited for him."

On the surface, they have nothing in common. Steckel is 6 feet 5, a long, sinewy band of muscle and bone. Boudreau is 5-9, several pounds past his playing weight. He was much better than the Crash Davis of minor league hockey -- a scorer of great renown.

But in Steckel, Boudreau sees a bit of himself -- the part he would go back and change if he could, the part that didn't use every minute of every day to ensure that his best NHL season in a 20-year career of call-ups amounted to more than just 10 goals and 14 assists in 39 games.

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