VANCOUVER – In the final words to his son, discovered in a letter written before he died suddenly last Father’s Day, Peter Stecher told his youngest boy, Troy, how proud he was about his son making the NHL, but that there would be more obstacles to overcome.
“How there’s no straight road in this world,” Troy Stecher shared with Sportsnet last summer. “There are always going to be bumps and bruises and you just keep going through it.”
That advice has carried Stecher through the 12 months since then.
It was with him last fall when the Vancouver Canucks surprisingly balked at re-signing their home-town defenceman and Stecher, 27, chose to be part of a Steve Yzerman’s rebuilding Detroit Red Wings team that finished 27th in the NHL the previous season.
And Peter’s words resonated at the world championships in Latvia, where Troy was one of the leaders on a largely anonymous Canadian team that lost its first three games before incredibly roaring to the world title. Team Canada upset Russia, the United States and Finland in its final three games, twice winning in overtime and claiming a spectacularly improbable gold medal on Sunday.
“It's been very difficult mentally,” Stecher said of the last year. “(But) just to win right before Father's Day -- we're coming up on a year now since my dad's passing -- I really couldn't imagine a better ending to the season. Being able to represent my country and the winning goal, coming from behind, you can kind of break down every single instance where it felt like there was something tragic or not going positively and then it all ended up working out. You could say that about the tournament, you could say that about my season. More than anything, I've learned a lot about myself as an individual.”
Stecher has started working with renowned sports psychologist Saul Miller, talking to him about hockey and his dad, who died suddenly of complications from diabetes at age 65.
“I talked to my brother and sister right after (the gold-medal game) and they were saying how proud Dad would be,” Troy said. “I don't know spiritually if he was there or not, but for my own personal sake, I imagine he was and that's all the comfort I need.”
There certainly seemed to be a divine hand guiding Stecher in the quarterfinals against Russia when the defenceman from Richmond, B.C., brilliantly set up Andrew Mangiapane’s winner in overtime by pulling the puck between his own skates to embarrass Ivan Morozov, then badly fooling defenceman Nikita Nesterov before passing across the goalmouth.
Until they lost to Canada, the Russians had looked untouchable. Stecher pulled off the same drag move at practice the day before and Team Canada assistant general manager Shane Doan urged him to try it in a game. Nobody figured it would be the next day, in overtime, to beat Russia.
“It's amazing how many thoughts go through your mind at that moment,” Stecher said. “It seems like it's going so fast, but it's really like kind of slow motion. The game before against Finland, I was in the situation Mangiapane was in (with the puck on the rush), and I hit Maxime Comtois late as the trailer and he got his shot blocked. So when I got the puck (as the trailer) from Mangiapane, I knew that their forward was going to sell out just to block the shot because you're in a desperate situation. Once I froze him, then the Shane Doan thought came into my head, and then the instincts kicked in and I pulled it off and just kind of blacked out from there. I've thought about it a little bit since then. That will for sure go down as my nicest highlight when my hockey career is over.”
An ardent Canucks’ fan growing up, Stecher was invited to the worlds by former Vancouver star Roberto Luongo, Team Canada’s GM. Both are active on Canucks Twitter, which knows Stecher as “Troy from Richmond.”
“I actually missed his call when I was having breakfast in Detroit, but I got a text from the same Fort Lauderdale number,” Stecher said. “When I called him back, I said, 'Is this Roberto Luongo?' He said: 'Yeah, is this Troy from Richmond?' We had a good laugh. Obviously, he's got a big personality on Twitter so (the conversation) kind of flourished right away from there we just kind of got down to business.
“Just Lou being Lou, I couldn’t say no. As everybody knows, I was a diehard Canucks fan so that was such a unique experience to be able to converse with him and get an invitation from him. At the same time, I knew how big an honour it is to represent Canada.”
Stecher was part of the previous Canadian team at the worlds, in 2019, which lost the final 3-1 to Finland in Slovakia. He and Adam Henrique of the Anaheim Ducks were the only returning players from that team.
Unable by COVID restrictions to leave their hotel in Riga except for practices and games, the Canadians spent hours getting to know each other in the players’ lounge, Stecher said.
He became especially close with Mangiapane, the Calgary Flame who surprised everyone but Stecher in the Canadian contingent by calling him “Tony.”
That little-known nickname from the Canucks originated from Stecher’s pro hockey debut with the Utica Comets in 2016. The Toronto Marlies’ game sheet that night erroneously listed him as Tony Strecher. Utica assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner began calling him Tony, and the nickname moved to the Canucks with Stecher when he was promoted to the NHL after only four games in the minors.
Mangiapane learned the nickname from Flames Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Josh Leivo, all ex-Canucks. To pass time in the bubble, Stecher said he and Mangiapane FaceTimed Tanev and Milan Lucic, the Flame who trains with Stecher in the summer.
“I’ve definitely made a new friend for life,” he said of Mangiapane. “It was awesome that we could connect there for a game-winning goal -- a guy I used to hate playing against when I was in Vancouver.
“It's just funny with hockey players, you hate each other on the ice and then you get traded or you come together on a team like Canada. . . and it's like you kind of forget about the hatred that you had and become really good friends. That's the thing I'll remember most -- the relationships I've built with those guys, and then capping it off with gold.”