Religion lifts Steffes to ECHL dominance
Looking at Gary Steffes’ career stats line from juniors in Cedar Rapids, four years in college and the last six years when he has played in several levels of the pros, his senior season at Miami stands out for all of the wrong reasons: 17 games, no goals, one assist.
Without knowing more about the 29-year-old forward, one might assume he was hurt that year, lost his passion for the game or battled any other of countless issues that sidetrack numerous would-be pro athletes from their ultimate goal.
But while many would hang up their skates and cash in their Miami degrees for lucrative jobs in their respective fields, the struggles of that 2009-10 campaign combined with hard work and a strong religious faith have culminated in his becoming one of the most lethal clutch scorers in the ECHL and Kelly Cup championships each of the past two seasons.
“I look back at my senior year, and it was probably one of the hardest years, hockey-wise, that I’ve ever had,” Steffes said. “I didn’t score a single goal all season, I had one assist and I played half of the games, and I really went through a lot. There’s no question that my faith in Jesus Christ was impactful for me.”
After netting just 12 goals in 98 games in the USHL, Steffes arrived in Oxford in the fall of 2006, becoming a member of the first freshman class to play at Cady Arena.
“I came in one guy and left another guy, both on and off the ice,” Steffes said. “Being a part of the RedHawks’ organization was an amazing blessing, and I can’t say thanks enough for how the coaching staff invested in me. When I think about my experience about Miami, it’s so much bigger than hockey, but my experience as a hockey player was top-notch. I got to play against some of the best programs in the world, and it was a tremendous honor. It developed me a ton, and I’m grateful.”
Steffes skated in all 42 games his rookie season, and as a sophomore, Steffes doubled his points total from his 5-3-8 freshman season, as he scored six times and set up 10 more while rising on Miami’s forward depth chart.
He also dressed for both games in the NCAA Tournament before Miami fell in the regional final.
Steffes was roomed with classmate and former NHLer Jarod Palmer when he first came to Oxford. The two had never met before but are now close friends.
“He was extremely energetic – a go-getter in every facet,” Palmer said. “I was a lot more laid back as far as life went, but Gary was 110 percent in everything he did, in every category. That really impressed me, honestly, and kind of intimidated me.”
Junior season was Steffes’ collegiate high point. It started with him recording a hat trick in the RedHawks’ home opener vs. Ohio State, and he finished with 11 goals – tied for fourth on the team – and 12 assists.
Miami advanced to the national championship game for the only time in its history, and Steffes netted the RedHawks’ first-ever NCAA title game goal.
“Junior year was probably the best year that I had of all of them,” Steffes said. “We get to go into the Frozen Four, and we beat Bemidji (State) and then we go to the national championship game, and the environment was just crazy. I still remember the line I got to play with and the teammates that I had – it was an exhilarating run and an exhilarating year, and really just to be a part of a team that was atop the nation fighting to win a national championship. It was an amazing experience that I’m blessed to have been a part of.”
There was reason to believe Steffes’ development would take yet another step forward in 2009-10, but his on-ice story in Oxford was pretty much complete.
“In college, (Steffes) had a tough time trying to stay calm,” Palmer said. “He was really nervous before games, and it would show in his play. He’d make panicked decisions out there. He wanted to be successful – he trained harder, he practiced harder than anyone. If you came to our practices you’d have thought he was the best player on the ice, without a doubt. But when it came to game time, performance time, he would get nervous and make strange decisions. As things didn’t go so well, his pressure increased.”
He was a healthy scratch down the stretch, including the NCAA Tournament as the RedHawks again qualified for the Frozen Four.
“Going through my senior season, it really was a very big maturing year, and the Lord, he pulled some things out of me and I had to develop in a lot of ways, mentally and emotionally. I look back at my performance, and I would’ve liked to have seen it a little better, but at the same time there are so many things that I took from that. I grew as a man, I grew as player – it was a tough year overall.”
Meanwhile, Palmer scored a team-high 18 times and picked up 27 assists for a RedHawks-best 45 points in his final season at Miami, but he was unable to help his struggling friend garner that same success.
“Senior year, he tried to find his way in life, and he really changed dramatically,” Palmer said. “He became a close follower of Christ, and I think it was really tough for him to watch other guys play games. He was (a) healthy scratch sometimes, and I saw that it hurt, it was really painful, and I didn’t really know how to help him. I tried to tell him mostly…he needed to relax, he needed to not think hockey is the most important thing in the world. He would put so much pressure on himself that he would kind of choke out there.”
Unless there’s a major injury, it’s almost a given that when a skater’s stat line reads 0-1-1 his final collegiate season, it’s time to find another line of work.
Steffes’ stock had obviously taken a major hit, and after being discussed as a potential AHL candidate prior to 2009-10, he found himself out of college eligibility and wondering if he had logged his last competitive game.
“I remember getting on my knees, saying Lord, if you want me to play, open up a door,” Steffes said. “But honestly, I didn’t have a ton of credibility to get my own contract. I didn’t know if I was going to play again. The Lord opened up a door in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to go play in the Central League and get my pro career started. It was crazy: An agent called me and asked if I wanted to play, and I said absolutely, I’d love to if there’s still an opening, and sure enough I had a contract a couple of weeks later, and I spent the next three years in Tulsa. I’m really grateful that I got to, I can tell you that.”
Tulsa, in the now-defunct CHL, was a step below the ECHL. Already 23 years old entering his first pro season, Steffes spent three full seasons with the Oilers and improved his points-per-game average in each one.
He went from 43 points in 66 games (0.65) as a rookie to 52 points in the same number of contests in his second pro season – a 0.79 clip – finishing third on his team in scoring and goals (22).
Steffes’ third season was a turning point in terms of offensive production. He scored 20 times and set up 14 more goals in just 37 games before vaulting two levels to the AHL, where he played 16 games with Lake Erie.
“I’d heard that the Central League was not the greatest league, and I was totally blown away by how gifted those players were,” Steffes said. “I grew so much as a player there, and my coach, Bruce Ramsay, took me under his wing and taught me how to be more offensive, and how to play in different spots on the power play, and how to be in situations that allow my game to develop and grow. And through that, I got my opportunity to go Lake Erie of the American League.”
Steffes put up a modest three points in his inaugural call-up to the Lock Monsters of North America’s second-best league, and his play in that 2012-13 season earned him a spot on Bakersfield of the ECHL the following fall.
It was Steffes’ first stint in that league, and he posted 18 goals and 17 assists, adding nine more points during the Condors’ conference finals run.
From there it was on to Allen – his current team and member of the ECHL – and Steffes has seemingly found the net at will since joining the Americans in 2014-15.
He led the league in goals with 44 despite a nine-game call-up to AHL Milwaukee. No one in the ECHL has scored more regular season goals since 2011. Steffes ended the season with 73 points and a plus-31 rating.
Steffes also netted four goals with the Admirals during his promotion and said that helped boost his confidence level even more.
“How could it not, right?” Steffes said. “You get to live out your dream, you get to go to the American League and play just on the verge of being in the NHL. There’s not an awe factor like there is some places. Now there’s a confidence like, holy smokes we could be called to be there tomorrow, and that’s just a totally different mentality. Obviously everyone’s games are totally top-notch, so it was extremely encouraging.”
He was sent back to Allen for the playoffs, where he resumed his torrid pace. Allen won the Kelly Cup that season, thanks largely to 13 goals by Steffes, tied for the second most that playoff year.
That gave him 61 goals between the regular season and playoffs.
Steffes called Palmer after he won that first Cup in Allen to thank him for helping him through that difficult period in Oxford.
In that conversion, Steffes told Palmer that he remembered their first game day together at Miami in the fall of 2006. Palmer was relaxed that day and took a nap while Steffes was pumped up in the hours before the puck dropped.
The result: Palmer had a solid night and Steffes did not.
“I said ‘wow, I’m glad I did something to help you out,’” Palmer said. “He said ‘I stayed really relaxed out there and we played great and we won the championship,’ and I said ‘that’s awesome’.
“The best athletes in the world, they’re not nervous before the game because they’re confident in themselves and they’ve practiced so many times and they’ve seen success in what they do so many times that they don’t have a thought in the world that something could go bad. It took Gary a long time to figure that out, and you can see it in pro hockey – he’s done really well for himself. Not just in the ECHL, but he’s gotten some chances to play in the AHL. That’s pretty special compared to where he finished his college career.”
But that was just half of Steffes’ championship story. He returned to Allen last season and earned another brief stint in the AHL, this time a two-game recall with San Jose where he picked up an assist.
Palmer, who had retired because of concussion issues in 2012-13 after six games in the NHL, actually joined shorthanded Allen over the holidays and played three games with his former Miami teammate before hanging up the skates again, this time for good.
“I’m really excited for him, to see his hockey success,” Palmer said. “I know he really battled hard in college and had some rough times, and to see him come out of that and end up becoming a champion in the (ECHL), it’s pretty cool. He was a captain in every way, shape and form. They even had him kind of coaching the penalty kill and teaching the system. It was pretty cool to see what a prominent role he played on the team.”
Steffes dominated in the playoffs again last season, amazingly putting up the same 13-5-18 postseason line en route to another Kelly Cup title this June.
“It’s such a neat feeling,” Steffes said. “You can look your brother in the eyes and say, ‘we did it’. Of all that we went through, in that moment you’re thinking about all of the bus trips, and you’re thinking about the ups and downs of your season, and you’re thinking about the injuries that guys took on, the guys that took big hits to make plays, the sacrifice guys made and the times you’re getting in at four in the morning from a bus trip and you’ve got to be up and ready to play the next day. There’s just this feeling of joy and relief and excitement and gratitude – it’s just a great feeling. And then that’s something you get to celebrate with your guys moving forward, right? We’ll always have that bond as brothers. It’s not just another team that we played for, it’s a team that did something successfully, a team that won the last game that they played in the season. That’s a pretty awesome feeling to have.”
So what has been the difference in Steffes’ game? He scored 22 goals in 136 games in four years with Miami and never recorded more than that in a single season dating back to juniors.
In 2014-15 and 2015-16 he has 96 between the regular and postseasons, including his trips to the AHL, in 192 games.
“I would say there’s been some significant development that’s happened in my career the past couple of years,” Steffes said. “My coach in Allen (Steve Martinson), of course, gave me the chance of a lifetime. He’s put me into opportunities when I can be effective offensively. And then I’ve had people come into my life that have really challenged me to become a critical thinker and to become a guy who is not just a robot and just does what coaches says but actually tries to get into (players’) heads as to how they think. When you watch the NHL and see some of the most prolific offensive players like Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton and (Joe) Pavelski and try to get into their minds, and what are they thinking in different situations? I really put a lot of time into that, I was watching video, I was learning, I was practicing different skills and trying to learn how to be a scorer. And then I got a coach that gave me the opportunity to do it and the Lord totally blessed the road. I walked away with nearly 50 goals in a season and to be a part of two incredible playoff runs, words can’t really express how I feel when I think about the whole journey I’ve been on here.”
Steffes will return to suburban Dallas again this fall where he will attempt to skate the Kelly Cup for a third straight year.
With three trips to the AHL in four years, chances are good he earns another recall.
No one in the hockey world appreciates his opportunities as much as Steffes, yet like all North Americans that lace up the skates, he still has strong NHL aspirations.
“I dream of it, man,” Steffes said. “I’m getting older, and I’m being careful of that line of perseverance and stubbornness. There’s a line where either you have to keep fighting a little longer, or you’re at the point of stubbornness, and you’ve kind of got to let go. But I’m still going for it, and I would love to be able to make the NHL and play one game. Anything’s possible and I’m going to keep working at it until God leads me out of it, leads me away. I’m hopeful – you never know – I got an opportunity last year, and I got an opportunity with Milwaukee the year before. (Need another) opportunity, and you never know what can happen from it.”
Now 29, Steffes has to make that annual decision: To keep playing or to turn pro in another field?
Even now, at the top of his game, it’s something he thinks about each off-season.
“Those are questions that I’ve really got to take some time to start thinking through, especially heading into my seventh year,” Steffes said. “I’ve definitely considered going to Europe, I’ve considered playing until I can’t play any more – you know, when you hang them up, you hang them up. I realize it’s a very big decision and I still love the game. I feel like I’m the prime of my career, and I feel like I’m totally in the best shape of my life at 29, so I’m not in a rush to hang them up, but I don’t know, but as for now I definitely hope to keep playing for a little while here.”
Opportunities, constant learning and staying in peak physical shape are musts for a hockey player’s game to spike.
But then there’s the mental side, the side that began evolving for Steffes during a tumultuous senior season in Oxford. And for Steffes, that growth directly correlates to his faith.
“As my life began to change in so many ways, I had to learn how to be motivated differently,” Steffes said. “I think there was definitely a transition of going from being motivated to prove people wrong and being motivated to prove how good and prove my worth by my performance to playing because I love the game, and I love my teammates and I love the Lord and I want to honor Him the best I can and be a man of excellence and be a man of honor in everything I can do.
“To be completely honest, this twitch in motivation has actually raised my game, because now my end goal isn’t just to be great in people’s eyes, my goal is to be the best I can possibly be in God’s eyes, and that draws me to a place where in my heart, I know if I’m really giving my all or not.”
Prior to that life-altering senior season at Miami, it was expected that Steffes’ final campaign with the RedHawks would pick up where his third year had left off.
Double-digit goals and assists as a top-six forward, even on a loaded MU team.
It didn’t work out that way for Steffes in 2009-10. But what if it had? What if the ECHL came easily to Steffes right out of college? Would he still be the player he is today?
“Where would I be if I had gone on that road, where would I be if that had happened?” Steffes said. “I definitely don’t know that I would be as strong in certain areas of character, in certain areas of the mental game that I am today. I have so much grateful for, but I realize that I don’t want to walk through that again. But looking back on it I can’t help but be grateful for some things that came out of it.”
So many people encounter seemingly-overwhelming obstacles in hockey and in life, and Steffes talked about how to overcome them.
“The encouraging thing is even when you walk through a valley, it doesn’t mean there’s not the opportunity for a mountain to be coming,” Steffes said. “If people are going through valleys, there are three enemies to persevere: The first one is we can buckle under the pressure and we can totally cave under the pressure. The second one is we can bail, when things get hard we just want to escape and want to get out of there, and the third one is we can start blaming. We can blame others and start pointing the finger left and right. Those three things I think about all the time when things get hard: Don’t buckle, don’t bail and don’t blame. Some of those competitive quote-unquote set-backs in life are really set-ups for us to do something greater. For me I look back at that tough (senior) season, and it was hard. It was really hard. But it totally molded me and I learned so many things that year that have really been huge for my in my pro career. I learned so much about strength of character and maturity and perspective and things outside of the rink that have totally catapulted me to be the player I am today. Totally.”
Steffes, whose Bachelor of Science from Miami is in kinesiology and health, is involved in an organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In the off-season, he travels around the country and the world, running hockey camps and teaching Christianity.
He enjoys meeting and helping kids that are struggling with their own challenges in life.
“It’s bigger than hockey, but hockey has become my tool to impact a lot of people for Christ,” Steffes said. “I’ve learned so many things about how to be a confident, consistent, excellent athlete that’s not defined by hockey. I think one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s so easy – especially for us as men – to be completely defined by what we do. What we do determines our worth and our value, and (determines) what other people think about us. To find freedom from that and to be able to experience the game the way it was intended to be played – you can compete when every time you’re touching the ice you’re not worried about your worth, your value being on the line. If you totally blow it, you totally fail you’re still the same guy – you’re worthy, you’re valuable. I think that is one of the biggest aspects of my journey is learning and realizing that hockey does not define me any more.”
When Steffes finally has to put the skates away for good, he would like to stay involved in the sport that he loves. He said he may write a book about his life and how to be a victorious Christian athlete.
“He’s very happy,” Palmer said. “He’s enjoying hockey, and he’s enjoying life – success or not – and I think that’s something that’s different about him since I played with him in college to now. When he found Christ he realized that he was loved by the Creator in all facets, regardless of whether he scored goals or not – that’s not something that’s very important in terms of eternity. Something for him was he found out that it wasn’t life or death to perform or not perform. Obviously everyone wants to perform and it’s always nice and feels good too, but I think Gary has gotten to the point where when he has a bad game or a bad shift, it doesn’t affect him like it used to because he knows he’s loved eternally by Jesus Christ. He’s a very loving human being and I think that comes from the Creator and his relationship with Christ.
“When I meet with him he likes to ask me the deep questions in life, like how’s your social life, how’s your relationship with your wife and your kids? And those are things that can be uncomfortable to talk about sometimes, but he’s really, genuinely concerned. Gary’s a very special human being because of how much he cares and loves people.”
To find out more about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, click here: