You won’t see them sitting beside each other on the bench, but make no mistake, Colton Stephenson is skating every shift with his younger brother, Chandler, as he begins his NHL career as a member of the Washington Capitals.
“Every time he steps on the ice I’d swear my heart rate goes up to what his is, and I played a shift with him,” Colton Stephenson says of his 21-year-old brother. “Then I de-stress and wait for the next shift and do it all over again. I try to act like I’m with him.”
In many ways he is.
“He always tells me I’m the only connection he has to hockey now,” Chandler says. “He’s playing through me, almost.”
Four years ago, after suffering his fifth diagnosed concussion as a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, Colton Stephenson, now 23, voluntarily walked away from the game he loved at the age of 19.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Colton, who at one point spent two weeks in the darkness of his billets’ basement, where their footsteps above him made his head pound.
“I heard stories about (Eric Lindros) and how he didn’t know which guy he was going to be which day because of his concussions. I was very irritable and unhappy and I didn’t even know it and it was affecting the people around me and I didn’t want that.”
So, after 70 games over four seasons with the Oil Kings, Colton Stephenson walked away from hockey and his dream of playing in the NHL.
“I don’t think I’ll ever regret it because I retired on my terms,” said Colton, who is 22 months older than Chandler. “I enjoyed the physical side of the game way too much, so it was kind of inevitable that head injuries were going to keep re-occurring.
“After I got my first one (at age 16) it was so easy to get them. It was only a matter of time before I took one that really changed my life. I saw the big picture and I wanted to be a good father and a good big brother and that’s why I made the decision. Concussions are not a good thing. They are very tough to deal with and very tough to overcome.”
Since the time they can both remember, Colton and Chandler Stephenson were playful thorns in each other’s sides.
“Chandler was always a pain in Colton’s (behind), for lack of a better word,” joked their father, Curt, 57, who runs a scrap yard in Saskatoon. “Chandler always wanted to tag along with Colton and he was so relentless. Colton would say, ‘OK, let’s go. But you either keep up or I’m not bringing you anymore.’”
“I always wanted to be like my brother growing up,” Chandler said. “He’s probably the biggest inspiration to me to play hockey. He showed me everything that I know. I always wanted to be like my big bro.”
In pickup hockey games, Colton and Chandler always played on opposing teams because, as Colton put it, “everybody thought we were too good to be on the same team.”
As teenagers, their father remembers bringing his two sons to the scrap yard on a Bring Your Child To Work day and receiving affirmation that their futures would be in hockey and not in the family business.
“They were throwing around a little bit of stainless steel and they said, ’Dad this is crazy,’” Curt Stephenson said. “And I said, ‘No, this isn’t crazy. This is what my guys do. They load that bin.’ One day there and that was it. They decided they would be hockey players.”
At 15, Colton was drafted by the Oil Kings as a hard-hitting, high energy forward. Two years later Chandler was taken by the Regina Pats as a skilled center and the two played their first WHL games against each other. Colton scored, the Oil Kings won and Chandler never heard the end of it.
“It was awesome,” Colton recalled.
Someday, they’d tell themselves, they would face each other in the NHL. But while Chandler’s career blossomed – he was taken by the Capitals in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft – Colton’s never got off the ground.
His first concussion came at age 16 when he took an elbow to the temple while trying to avoid a check. The second came two weeks later, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. When he was diagnosed with a third concussion in an exhibition game the following season, Colton sat the entire season, hoping the time off would reduce the likelihood of another.
But in his final season with the Oil Kings, Colton was given two more concussions, one when his head hit the glass and another when he was knocked out on a blow to the chin.
“He could either stick around and have the chance of getting another one or shut it down and follow a new path,” Chandler Stephenson said. “He didn’t want to damage his brain because it’s your brain. That’s your everything.”
As part of their commitment to their players the Oil Kings agree to pay for five years of secondary education and Colton enrolled in the University of Saskatoon, where he is studying to become a personal trainer.
“I hate when people say I quit, because I didn’t,” Colton said. “And I think it hurt Chandler a lot too, because he wanted to see us both there. It’s a tough thing because it was taken from me. It’s not like I tried and I never made it.”
Chandler Stephenson signed his first pro contract with the Capitals in April of 2014 and played all of last season with the Hershey Bears, recording seven goals and seven assists in 54 games. He emerged as a candidate to make the Capitals out of training camp this season, but was sent to Hershey on the team’s final round of cuts.
However, two games into the Caps’ season, the club recalled Stephenson and, without the benefit of a morning skate, gave him his first NHL game on Oct. 15 against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Stephenson family hurriedly purchased the NHL Center Ice package to see Chandler play in his first NHL game, then anxiously awaited the Capitals’ visit to western Canada for a three-game road trip from Oct. 20-23.
Chandler’s parents, Curt and Bev, attended all three games in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, with Colton and close to 40 other family and friends joining them in Edmonton on Oct. 23.
“I wish everyone could experience the feeling we felt,” Bev Stephenson said. “For me it was exciting to see how everybody else felt.”
“There were so many mixed emotions,” Colton said. “He showed me that it was possible to get there. It seemed like getting to the NHL was something you can only dream of, but he showed me it was possible.
“There were so many family and friends there and to see him in front of that many fans at an Oiler game was crazy to see. I can’t wait to see him at the Verizon Center when it’s in front of his home fans. Sometimes I can’t believe he actually did it.”
Chandler said his conversation with Colton after that game in Edmonton was an emotional one for both of them.
“It’s been four years now but it’s always going to be there,” Chandler said of Colton’s decision to retire. “Obviously, it eats him up inside but he doesn’t show it. Just talking about where I’m at right now he gets emotional with, ‘What if? What if?’ But he’s kind of living the NHL through me now. It’s the closest thing he has to it.”
Because of that, Chandler Stephenson said he treasures every moment he has in the NHL.
“He’s always told me not to take anything for granted in the game because it can be taken from you just like that,” he said. “It was obviously a huge feeling for him to see me play in my first game. He said he was a little choked up.”
So was their father.
“I’m very, very blessed,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more in life. To see Chandler on the ice and seeing him talking with (Alex) Ovechkin and (Nicklas) Backstrom and seeing him laugh, it’s so surreal.
“He’s there and a big part of why he’s there is Colton. He pushed him. Colton had the work ethic and he had to pass it on. Colton told him there are lots of guys who can play, but it’s the heart and the will that gets you through.”
With his sights set on becoming a personal trainer, Colton Stephenson believes the paths taken by him and his younger brother will someday intersect.
“I learned so much from hockey and I learned so much from losing it,” he said. “I’m a different person because of it. And if it was between me and Chandler making it the NHL I would always pick him because I do believe there is something else for me to do. I was never supposed to play in the NHL.
“I have different goals now,” Colton said, “and one of them is helping my brother raise the Stanley Cup.”
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