Stephen Wagner crouches in front of the net, calmly knocking away shot after shot. The 20-year-old Cree goalie from Ponoka, Alta. knows that with each save, he's one step closer to the NHL.
A sophomore at the University of Denver, his coach says Wagner already has the focus and maturity of a seasoned professional. And he is well aware of the long road ahead of him.
His impressive resume began only three years ago when he barely missed making the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Wagner ended up in the Alberta Junior Hockey League playing for the Olds Grizzlys and was named top scholastic player in his first year with the team. The next year, Wagner was voted the teams Most Valuable Player and was given the award of AJHL Top Goaltender. Scouts and college recruiters began to take notice, and by the end of his second season with the Grizzlies he had been recruited by 13 American Division I schools and was offered the chance to play for the WHL Prince Albert Raiders. To top off the year, Stephen was selected in the fourth round, 159th overall, in the 1996 NHL entry draft by the St. Louis Blues.
By this time, Wagner had already made the decision to attend the University of Denver to play for the Pioneers. Stephen explains the decision as one that was easy to make.
"If I blow out my knee, I still have a scholarship for three more years," said Wagner, "and I can still go to school, get an education and get a job after hockey."
Judging from his freshman year, however, it looks as if Wagner will have a long, successful hockey career. In his first year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Associate, he was ranked third in goals against average with a 2.85, first in save percentage at 90.4 and was considered one of the top five college goalies in the nation. Additionally, he received numerous awards, including the team's Freshman of the Year and the University of Denver Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete.
George Gwozdecky, head coach for the Pioneers, couldn't be more pleased with the performance of Wagner, who has earned himself the starting goaltender position this year.
"Not many goaltenders can come in at this level and perform the way Steve did last year," said Gwozdecky, "He was really able to keep the team in contention early in the year."
Gwozdecky describes Wagner as a fierce competitor who wants to play every game and is willing to work hard to improve his game. He conveys a certain confidence on the ice, never getting rattled, which is intimidating to opponents.
The best news, said Gwozdecky, is that "Steve is not a finished product," indicating that he has potential to advance to an even higher level of play.
While this may not seem to be out of the ordinary for any other exceptionally talented athlete, consider that Wagner also maintains a 3.1 grade point average as a business major in an internationally acclaimed business program. In fact, he believes that his schooling helps to keep him busy and focused. There's no time to get homesick.
If that isn't enough to keep him busy, Wagner also serves as vice-president of the university's Native American Student Alliance. Being so far away from home, he finds it important to be involved with other Native people on campus.
"It keeps me in touch with who I really am. It brings me down to reality when I start getting a big head," he joked.
Participating in Aboriginal organizations and events have always been important to Wagner, and he plans to keep giving back to his community. This past summer, he was a chaperone for his band (Ermineskin Cree) at the North American Indigenous Games and next summer plans on helping out a hockey camp for Aboriginal youth, something he hopes to continue to do each year.
When asked what hockey players he looked up to while growing up, it's not surprising that he chose to idolize another goalie of Aboriginal ancestry from the Edmonton area. Grant Fuhr. Fuhr, also Cree, currently plays for the St. Louis Bles, the same team that owns the rights to Wagner.
"I grew up watching the Oilers with Fuhr in net. He's been in the league for over 16 years and at 35 is still one of the best, quickest goalies," states Wagner. "I would love to have a career like that."