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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

A Q&A with Leafs’ Alex Steeves on the journey from College to pro hockey

Before Alex Steeves stepped foot onto the ice in a Toronto Marlies uniform, he made one thing clear — he wanted to “dominate” at the AHL level.

During Steeves’ first 12 games in the American Hockey League, Steeves did just that, putting up 12 points in that span. That was good enough for the Maple Leafs to give him a look at the NHL level.

Now, though, the 22-year-old is back with the Marlies, doing everything he can to improve each day. Literally everything, including dropping the gloves to stick up for a teammate.

Steeves was one of the players Toronto did right with when signing him through the NCAA last year. It’s again, at the point where college players are becoming free agents, which means the Maple Leafs might go for another.

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On Thursday, I got the chance to chat with Steeves about his decision to leave Notre Dame and pursue pro hockey, his season with the Marlies, what the NHL was like, life outside of the rink, his favourite restaurants in Toronto, not getting drafted, and a scenario that he’s not too familiar with.

The 22-year-old said a lot of interesting things, so instead of chopping quotes up and leaving some words out, I thought this would be a great Q&A piece. I hope you enjoy!


Where does the mindset of wanting to “dominate” in the AHL come from?

“I think just high expectations for myself. I left school early, I could’ve gone back for another year, but I made the decision to leave early and turn pro because I believed I was ready to be a player that I wanted to be at the pro level. School is really important to me so I think, mentally, in order to give myself the okay to forgo my senior year and my degree, for now, I had to know I was ready to go in and at least at the American Hockey League level, be ready to play really important minutes and contribute, help teams win hockey games.”

When you look at the decision now, to leave school and enter pro hockey, how difficult was that decision to make?

“It was very, very hard, for various reasons. I mean, I could go down the line. Just in general, leaving a place like Notre Dame, where you’re constantly feeling grateful to be there, it’s pretty hard. I have lifelong friends there, that it’s tough. Like I see them, I’ve gone back and visited a couple times this year, I keep in touch with them, I see videos, and sometimes you get a little of — you’re upset/a little bit of fomo (fear of missing out) — like you’re missing out on all of these great memorable times with your best friends who you’ve been with for the past three years, at a really special place. So it’s tough. It’s tough to make that kind of sacrifice and give that up. You know, my girlfriend is still at Notre Dame, the coaches, people who recruited me and believed in me had an expectation that I’d probably play four years there. To make the change to go pro, you’re sacrificing a lot and you’re essentially passing on a situation that a lot of people would be envious of, just to have one year at Notre Dame, let alone my senior year. So, that was really tough but, I mean, one thing I’ve definitely learned is if you’re an ambitious person, you’ve gotta make sacrifices along the way and at the end of the day, I just felt like, with the year I put together last year, on top of career at Notre Dame, I felt like it was just time for me to take on a new challenge. I thought that would give me the best chance to make it to the NHL. After meeting with Toronto and listening to them, envisioning the development and opportunity, it just kind of ended up being something I couldn’t pass up.”

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With the Marlies being a tight-knit team, how easy was the transition to pro hockey?

“Honestly, coming into the year, that was one of the things I was most nervous about was what my social life would be like in pro hockey. And you know, maybe that’s just this team, how close we are, but something I was nervous about was going from college, where you’re with the same guys every year and it’s a great group of guys and you do everything together. You hang out after class, you do all this stuff together. I was nervous that, and I heard that on a lot of teams, just depending on what it is, sometimes it’s just you go to the rink — you go to work, essentially, and then, see ya tomorrow. It’s like you leave and then that’s it. So, I was a little nervous for that just cause I’m a pretty social guy, especially after living that for three years in college. I was afraid it might be a tough transition but luckily, I can’t really explain why, it’s just I think we got a group of balanced personalities. Enough outgoing guys, enough kind of wise-guys, like just everything. We got a good group and I think guys want to be around each other, they don’t just want to clock in and clock out, necessarily. So, that’s definitely made my transition a lot easier because I’m a guy who wants, that’s probably one of my greatest motivations to play hockey, is I just love being a part of the team and it’s just an awesome, awesome job.”

How nice was it to have Matt Hellickson, a teammate at Notre Dame, here with you on the Marlies?

“He was with me all three years at Notre Dame. He was actually in the class ahead of me, in my older brother’s class. Him and my older brother are, like, best friends. As soon as he signed, I immediately reached out to him and said ‘Hey, like, do you want to live together?’ Just cause, again, I was kind of nervous that maybe I’m just going to clock-in and clock-out every day and have these afternoon’s just kind of by myself, which I’ve never done before, so I thought it would be nice to have someone to share that with. And it has been really nice cause he’s a really good friend of mine. Luckily, we got other guys we can hangout with too cause guys are really social on this team, but it’s been awesome living with Helly for sure.”

What do you like to do to get your mind off the game of hockey?

“We like movies, shows, going out to dinner, going on walks sometimes. It’s one of the funnier things we do is we’ll just put our headphones on so we don’t hear each other or anything, we can just have our own music playing and we just walk around the city and just jam to our tunes. If we ever see something funny, we’ll kind of give each other eye contact or something, but we’re kind of just, like, walking around together, listening to music, having a good time. We’ve got similar interests, so I think we’re a really good fit to live together.”

What’s the best restaurant that you’ve been to in Toronto so far?

“I really like Sotto Sotto, in Yorkville. Sotto Sotto’s good. I’ve been to some other good ones, but I think our most frequently visited restaurant is The Keg, just cause it’s super reliable. I think the waitresses kind of, like, know us there now. Helly and I walk in and they’re like ‘Oh, these guys are back.’ We’re probably keeping them in business. But, yeah, no, we just have a good time.”

Is there anything about your game that’s stood out to you since joining the Marlies?

“I think for me, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how I want to play, so nothing has really stood out to me. I’ve always prided myself as someone who can put the puck in the net, I feel like I generate scoring chances, and I feel like I’m reliable defensively. So, I guess the one thing that’s stood out to me, I guess, in terms of maybe being ahead of schedule is just how comfortable I am in the room. Like I feel like I’m a voice on the bench during games. I won’t speak to whether or not guys view me as someone they can look to when adversity hits and stuff, but I just feel like I’m a voice in the locker room, I’m energetic, and I think for a rookie, maybe, wouldn’t have expected that but I think with just how close our team is, for most of this season the responsibility I’ve been given on the ice, it’s just been something I’ve kind of just been myself, which is a loud person.”

Leaving Notre Dame and wanting to achieve your dream of getting to the NHL, did you think it would happen this fast?

“No, I didn’t. Coming into the year, I knew I wanted to play in the NHL this year. I knew right away that it wouldn’t be out of camp because I separated my shoulder. But, I honestly had no idea when that would be, but I definitely carried the perspective that, largely, a lot of it was out of my control, whether it be injuries, other prospects, stuff like that. So I just tried to give my best product and position myself where if something did happen, I was one of the first guys they’d look to. So, did I think it would happen after, I think it was what, 12 games or something for me? Didn’t really think about it like that, but it was definitely super exciting.”

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What was the best part of being up in the NHL?

“I think just sharing it with my family. All my grandparents were there and my parents. You know, I’ve been put in some adverse situations with hockey where, for example, at the draft I was expected to get drafted, everybody expected me to get drafted and then I didn’t. I think sometimes doubt might creep into some people’s minds, like ‘Oh, maybe he’s not that type of player.’ But my grandparents, my parents, like, I’ve always felt like regardless of things that have happened out of my control whether it be getting passed over in the draft or things of that nature, they’ve always believed in me. So, I think, just being able to share that with them, like it wasn’t just my NHL debut, it was our NHL debut just because they’ve provided so many resources and so much love and support for me, so it was special for them to be there.”

How motivating was it for you not getting drafted, but still ending up here in pro hockey?

“Getting passed on in the draft, in particular, was the single most powerful/best thing that ever happened to me. I had gone through adversity before but probably nothing as emotionally challenging as that. It really, with the help of the people around me, it honestly taught me that, like, adversity is the most powerful thing, probably ever, in terms of the path to success. Just, when you approach it the right way and you embrace it, it’s motivating, it can honestly be like a catapult and domino effect for greater things if you use it the right way. So, I will say, I think that had I been drafted, I would be in a very similar situation, just cause I consider myself to be someone of a high work ethic and passion for hockey, but not getting drafted I think was just an unbelievable example of adversity, where now when I face adverse situations, I’m comfortable.”

After your fight on Wednesday night, I wanted to ask, has that ever been something you’ve done in the past?

“Yeah, I fought in juniors. Similar situation. One of my teammates got hit pretty hard. I don’t think I’m a grueling player out there necessarily, I don’t think I’m a fighter, but at the same time, I’ve definitely not a push over. And it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I know for a fact Brett Seney would’ve done the same thing for me. In fact, earlier in the game, I think I got hit pretty late and he went in, and he didn’t fight the guy, but he was in there. So, it just seemed like the right thing to do, game wasn’t going great, and when one of your best players gets hit like that, I just stepped in there and wanted to convey that that isn’t alright.”

What is that like, when you don’t fight that often?

“It’s honestly, kind of crazy. It’s like a massive dose of adrenaline. I remember it all, but someone told me, like, when I was in there (the dressing room), I was breathing super hard for three minutes and I had no idea I was doing that. But then, like, seven minutes later, when Dicky (Rich Clune) came in, I was just watching him just literally breathing so hard for four minutes. And I made that comment to someone this morning and someone was like, ‘You were doing the same thing when you came in.’ So you kind of just, like, black out. I don’t love fighting, I think it belongs in hockey for situations like that, but it’s not something I look for. But, at the same time, I just felt like it was the right move.”