When Steve Schiefele was a small boy, his father would shake him awake early on a winter morning. Schiefele would throw on his practice jersey, gather his gear and trudge through the woods to frozen-over Greenbelt Lake.
Schiefele's father thought his son ought to try a sport and hoped that hockey might catch his interest. He bundled up and tagged along.
Steve Schiefele would lace up his skates. He would take a small step forward on the ice. He would fall.
He would collect himself, step again, fall again.
And then he'd cry.
"I hated it so much, you wouldn't believe," Schiefele recalled. "I didn't think it was such a great idea. I didn't really want to keep going back, I was so frustrated."
Nevertheless, the dutiful son kept at it.
The sunrise sessions were the start of a long road, a road Schiefele has traveled at a brisk pace. It has taken him to a spot on Team USA, the National Junior Select hockey team; a starting berth on the Stratford Cullitons, a Canadian Junior B League club, and, possibly, to this summer's National Hockey League draft.
He still hates the training, but the results are hard to argue with.
Considered by many coaches and scouts to be among the top 10 percent of young players in the United States and Canada, Schiefele, 17, is one of the most sought-after prospects in organized hockey. He is regarded as a dedicated hard worker with unlimited potential.
He also is regarded as something of a rarity: a hockey player who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Last summer, when most of his friends were busy at the beach, Schiefele was considering his options. He'd just completed his junior year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. He could finish his senior year, playing another season for the school's hockey club, graduate with his class and then hope for a college scholarship. Or, he could take a chance, play a year in Canada, refine his game, face better competition, and maybe, get discovered by some big-time scout.
"I thought it over long and hard," he said. "It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make. But it was also one of the best decisions I've ever made."
Schiefele (pronounced Shy-flee) now spends his days in Stratford, Ontario, a small, working-class town 90 miles west of Toronto where he lives with Sheila and Ken Salt, his host family, and attends classes at Stratford Central High School, where he will graduate in June.
He leads a typical teen-ager's life: takes English, accounting and data processing, complains about his schedule next semester ("I'm kinda worried about Canadian history . . . I don't really have any idea what to expect"), hangs out regularly at McDonald's and Dairy Queen, talks about new movies (" 'Rocky IV' was good; I really got pumped up"), thinks about his '66 metallic-blue Mustang back home, and watches Much Music, Canada's answer to MTV.
But there is a flip side, too: a life filled with long workouts, intrasquad scrimmages, daily skating practice, road trips and team meetings.
He says he loves it all.
"Everything's great, it really is," he said. "I wouldn't be up here if I didn't think so . . . It's a fun game, and I'm having fun playing it."
The team's starting right-winger, Schiefele has scored 38 goals in 36 games, fourth-best on the Cullitons and in the Midwestern Junior B League. He has five hat tricks and is third in the league in assists with 40. He is a big reason the Cullitons are 32-2-2 and a leading contender for the Ontario Hockey Association championship in March.
Stratford, a town taken by hockey, has taken to Schiefele. Kids stop him on the street to say, "Nice game," and ask for his autograph. His name frequently pops up in the local headlines. "Cullitons' Schiefele Full of Tricks," says one. "Schiefele Keys Stratford Victory," reads another. "Schiefele Picks Up Third Hat Trick as Tribe Crowns Sugar Kings."
The atmosphere on game days -- overflow crowds, scouts, radio broadcasts -- is not unlike that of big-time American high school football.
"It's just amazing the way they treat you," says Schiefele. "I've never seen anything like it. They really get into it. When I first got here I couldn't believe it."
When he arrived, his tone was decidedly more subdued. He said he had trouble adjusting -- to a different country, to a rougher style of hockey, to new friends. He was a long way from his home and his family, and he felt a little lost.
He tried his best to fit in, working hard in practice and games to take his mind off the transition. He called home a lot, usually two or three times a week. His parents told him to be patient and play as hard as he could.
"It was a real adjustment at first. I kind of felt like an outcast," he said. "At training camp especially. It was a totally different atmosphere and there was a lot of pressure. But they really supported me.
"And I kept reminding myself to be myself and just play hockey and I started to blend in pretty smoothly."
Smoothly and quickly. Already, he has attracted scholarship offers from Boston College, New Hampshire, Lake Superior State College and Bowling Green. A semipro team, the Portland Winterhawks, is interested. He said he likes the attention; it's the accompanying pressure he could do without.
"It's nice, yeah," he said. "But, you know, you're out there trying to play the game and you know there are people up there watching you. And you're trying to keep your mind on what you're doing and also try to look good . . . it's not the easiest thing."
Still unsure about his plans next year, he said he will sit down after the season and sort out the possibilities. He could play another year in Stratford. He could submit his name to the NHL draft. More likely, he will accept a college scholarship, an option he kept open by turning down a chance to play for Stratford's A team.
For now, he wants only to finish the season, graduate with honors and find out all he can about Canadian life.
Some observations: "It's really not that different up here. They talk differently. It's a lot colder. Hockey's real big . . . But that's about it." "Merv Griffin's very popular. Every time I turn the channel, he's on. It's almost scary." "The pizza's a little different. They like to put lots of stuff on it up here. You know, sausage and pepperoni and Canadian bacon -- all kinds of toppings." "The first day it snowed here -- I think it was something like minus 10 degrees outside -- we got 2 1/2 feet. And I'm like, 'All right, we're not gonna have school!' The guys on the team just looked at me. They said, 'It's gotta be at least three feet before they do anything.' We had school that day, too."
Always, Steve Schiefele played. He played before he had a stick and a puck, using tennis balls and a broom handle to practice. He played on tennis courts when there was no available rink. He even played when nobody else was around, sometimes just knocking around a puck for fun.
"I don't ever remember seeing Steve without a stick of some kind. He was always hitting something. Every chance he got, he played," said his mother, Judy Schiefele. "He just loves to play."
The feel for the game, which started in his early-morning skates with his father, was nurtured by frequent trips downtown to Uline Arena to see the local semipro Washington Chiefs. By the time Schiefele was 9, he was asking his father for money to play club hockey.
"I remember the two of us going out to this one organization," John Schiefele, Steve's father, recalled, smiling. "We answered this ad. They were looking for kids to play. And they took one look at Steve and they said, 'No, too young, not enough experience . . . started too late.' "
Undaunted, Schiefele signed up with the Bowie Hockey Club and finished the season as the team's leading scorer. "That," said John Schiefele, "really started the wheels moving." Schiefele moved on to the Washington Metros, where he spent four years, twice leading the Mid-American Region in scoring. A two-year stint with the Philadelphia Little Flyers of the Mid-Atlantic Hockey Association followed. The wheels were rolling.
Last year, he totaled 187 points in 40 games with the Flyers and 20 games with the Crusaders of the Chesapeake Hockey League. He scored 105 goals and had 82 assists from November to April with the two teams.
He also received two gold medals and a silver medal for his play in the Ajax-Toronto Major Midget Hockey Tournament in Ontario last winter. He was the only 15-year-old selected to the all-star team.
The real test, he insists, was last summer's Team USA tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo. Schiefele made the squad, surviving three rounds of cuts and an exhausting two weeks of training camp.
"I knew then," he said, "that I could play this game."
How far can Steve Schiefele go?
"He's got a lot of natural ability, but that only gets you started," said John Schiefele. "In the end, it takes a lot of hard work, and Steve is very dedicated."
"I still don't think he's found his limitations," said John Osidach, who coaches the Washington Metros. "He'll go as far as his talent and a little luck will take him. I think the pros are a definite possibility."
"He's in a good competitive situation where he's being watched by a lot of NHL teams," said David Poile, the Washington Capitals' general manager. "It appears a good chance he'll be drafted; what round, I don't know. I do think he's shown it's possible for someone from this area of the country to develop and become a pro someday."
"I'm pretty confident," said Steve Schiefele. "I think I have a real future."