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Former Capital Dave Steckel opens up about fertility struggles

David Steckel spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals organization. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Dave Steckel spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals organization, and many fans remember him for his heroic overtime game-winning goal in the 2009 playoffs to force a Game 7 against the Penguins. But while he was dominating faceoffs and killing penalties, he was also dealing with something far more important than hockey.

Steckel and his wife, Diondra, had been unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child for three years. When Caps team doctor Christopher Walsh found out they were having trouble, he encouraged Dave and Diondra to see a fertility specialist.

“Like most people, we thought that it was maybe her,” said Dave, 31, now a member of the Anaheim Ducks. “But it turned out there was nothing wrong with her at all. It was strictly me.”

Dave was told he had a low sperm count with low motility. Exploratory surgery for undescended testes as a child had left him with varicocele, an abnormal enlargement of veins that can lead to fertility issues in men. It was crushing news for the couple, who at the time were unsure of their options.

“At that point it didn’t matter that it was me or my wife. I was just overwhelmed and so frustrated that we wanted to have a kid and couldn’t have one,” Dave said. “After the initial frustration wore off I was like, ‘Okay, what’s our next step?’”

Their doctor at Shady Grove Fertility Center told the Steckels that they had some choices. In most cases it is recommend that couples start their fertility process with Intrauterine Insemination, or IUI. But because of Dave’s low sperm count combined with low motility, their best chance was to skip the IUI and go right to the more intensive process of In Vitro Fertilization, or IVF.

The IVF process includes hormone therapy via daily injections, and numerous doctor’s appointments every week for monitoring.

“It’s a lot,” Diondra said. “It’s shots and blood tests and you’re in the doctor’s office all the time. Getting pregnant is a huge step, anyway, and you’re already nervous. But going through the process, with you hormones all over the place because of the medication. It’s a lot to take on for your body.”

They went through their first cycle in May of 2010, near the end of Dave’s last full season with the Caps (he was traded to New Jersey in exchange for Jason Arnott the following spring). He went to as many appointments with Diondra as he could, and played a hands-on role, helping her with the daily injections that needed to be administered to a sensitive area.

“I learned that I can give shots in her behind,” Dave laughed.

But despite their ability to find humor in the situation, the process was painful for the college sweethearts from Ohio State, where Diondra was a basketball standout and Dave a hockey star.

“You have to have a pretty strong relationship because it’s hard on both of you,” Diondra said. “There were times when he felt so guilty. But I was the one going through the pain and the different testing. Sometimes he would apologize. It’s like, no. If it was my issue, we’d still be doing this.”

The appointments and treatments involved in IVF have to be done on specific cycle days, which isn’t exactly convenient for a hockey player with a tough schedule. When the Caps were on road trips, Sarah Chimera, wife of teammate Jason Chimera, and Rachel Fehr, wife of Eric Fehr, took over nursing duties and helped Diondra with her injections.

“They got a lot closer to me than they ever wanted to,” Diondra joked.

At the end of that first cycle, the Steckels got news from their doctor that their pregnancy test was positive. But in the early days of the pregnancy, Diondra’s hormone levels failed to rise normally and she miscarried.

“It was devastating,” Diondra said. “After being so excited that it worked, to have to go through that was just awful.”

The Steckels decided to take the summer off from the intensive treatments to give themselves time to heal. They returned to the process in September of 2010, with successful results. This time the pregnancy was healthy, and the couple had a baby girl named Harper on May 24, 2011.

The couple knows that they were lucky enough to be able to afford the treatments, which can cost up to $20,000 per cycle without insurance coverage. Dave also knew a couple of players in the league who were going through similar struggles, so during negotiations for the most recent NHL collective bargaining agreement, he became an advocate for increasing the amount of fertility coverage included in the league health plan. Players are now covered for five cycles, instead of the one cycle previously offered.

The Steckels are open to trying IVF again in the future, but they are speaking out now in the hopes that it will encourage other couples to seek help if they are having trouble getting pregnant.

“What surprised me is that there are so many people who go through it that you don’t even realize,” said Diondra, who admitted there were times that they were tempted to stop treatments because they were so painful. “Dave and I never wanted to hide it. We’ve been very open about it and answer all questions about it. And nine times out of 10, you’ll meet someone who has gone through it, or knows someone who has gone through it. It’s a lot more common than I ever would have thought.”

As for Dave and the social stigma that sometimes comes with a low sperm count, he got over that pretty quickly.

“Yeah, I’m a hockey player,” said Dave, who since leaving Washington has played for New Jersey, Toronto and now Anaheim under former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “But I’m a father first and foremost. Get yourself tested; it could be you. And if it is, no big deal. You go from there. Doesn’t matter how big of a hard-ass you are.

“And keep an open mind,” he added. “Every needle every day is going to be a reminder of what you’re going through. It was totally worth it.”