VANCOUVER — Before each game, Troy Stecher ends his highly ritualized warm-up by skating to the bench to grab a water bottle, then spinning five times as he coasts to a stop. The first squirt of water goes on the ice, the second in his mouth and the third is a geyser straight up and over his head.
He says five was the number all the Stechers wore growing up in Richmond, B.C., and the water spray began in junior hockey as an ode to LeBron James and his chalk throw before every basketball game.
Stecher also drinks exactly half a can of Pepsi 15 minutes before warmup, the other half 15 minutes after. He splits another can of pop during the first and second intermissions.
“My dad is diabetic,” Stecher, the Vancouver Canucks defenceman, explains. “So we always had Coke and Pepsi in the house when I was growing up. I guess you could say I’m addicted.”
Stecher’s superstition game is at an elite level. If anyone can voodoo his way out of a run of bad luck, it should be the smart 25-year-old who scored own goals the last two games – losses that continued the Canucks’ struggle through February.
But he won’t be changing any routines before the Canucks, clinging to a playoff spot, play the Boston Bruins on Saturday at Rogers Arena to end a six-game homestand.
“At the end of the day, it’s just luck and unfortunate bounces,” Stecher says. “For me, the most important thing is just making sure I’m prepared to play the game and playing a good game. I don’t think those plays indicate the way I’m playing.”
In Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, the Canucks surrendered the tying goal when Alex Galchenyuk’s goalmouth backhand ramped up off Vancouver winger Loui Eriksson’s skate, hit Stecher’s arm or torso, bounced up against his mouth and tumbled over goalie Jacob Markstrom and into the net late in the third period.
The game prior, a 5-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, began with Adam Henrique banking the puck in off Stecher’s stick after the Canuck went to his knees to prevent a pass.
“You just feel, like, bad,” Stecher says. “(Against Minnesota), I boxed out well on the point shot. It goes behind the net, but I don’t want to chase. Next thing you know, I’m by the post and it’s going in off my face. It bounced up and off my mouth, and then I see it fall over Marky’s shoulder. It was like slow-mo. I wish I could have stuck out my glove and grabbed it.”
But Stecher couldn’t, and when the Canucks failed to seize chances to win in regulation and the shootout, the defenceman discovered after the game another torrent of online hate mail streaming toward him.
“The worst,” he says.
Since Stecher is active on social media, he’s also aware his name keeps popping up in trade conjecture.
He is a restricted free agent after this season. But since the Canucks are getting squeezed up against the salary cap and Stecher’s cap hit is $2.33 million, Vancouver may decide not to qualify him and turn Stecher lose as an unrestricted free agent this summer like they did last year with Ben Hutton.
It would be better for the Canucks to get something instead of nothing for Stecher, but it’s hard to envision them deleting a lineup regular before Monday’s trade deadline when the team is straining to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“People can say what they want to say,” Stecher says. “But at the end of the day, I feel confident in what I’m doing on the ice and kind of just let the chips fall where they may. If it happens, it happens. And if I do (get traded), I’m going to go to that team and play the same way. I’m going to come to the rink and just try to work hard every day.
“But I’d love to do that here for the rest of my career.”
Stecher signed with his hometown Canucks in 2016 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of North Dakota. All but four games of his professional career have been spent at the NHL level. But he’s trending the wrong way this season.
Coach Travis Green has cleaved nearly five minutes off Stecher’s playing time since last season, when his average ice time was helped by injuries to Chris Tanev and Alex Edler, and by sharing a blue line with Hutton, Erik Gudbranson and Derrick Pouliot.
Stecher has been removed almost entirely from special teams, which is partly why he is averaging just 15:05 of playing time.
“At the beginning of the year, yeah, I was a bit sour,” Stecher says. “I think my first couple of games I played less than 12 minutes (he averaged 10:38). But the biggest thing is I didn’t want my teammates to notice it. I didn’t want it to affect them. So I come to the rink and work hard, show respect for my teammates and my coaches, and hopefully, my play leads to something more, which it has.”
Banished to a third pairing with struggling Jordie Benn for most of the opening two months, Stecher has been a fairly regular even-strength partner for Edler the last six weeks, when his playing time has averaged 16:40 — close to last season’s when you exclude special teams.
He hasn’t complained about his diminished role, and is eager to help the Canucks make the playoffs for the first time since he left college.
“I give a lot of credit to my dad and the way he raised me,” Stecher says of his father, Peter. “My dad is older – he was born in 1955 – and I was his third child. He was pretty old school and never sugar-coated anything. He hated it if you cried or complained. You just worked harder and figured out a way to solve your problem.”
That’s still a good mindset for Stecher.