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Naomi Brookner⁄The GazetteChevy Chase native Stephen Werner, 22, spent a recent Friday afternoon teaching kids from the Washington, D.C. area a few hockey pointers at the Washington Capitals Youth Hockey Camp in Ashburn, Va. Werner signed a three-year deal with the Capitals in March and is expected to play for the team’s minor league affiliate, the AHL champion Hershey Bears, in the fall.
For the first time, during four games in March, 22-year-old Stephen Werner of Chevy Chase was a professional hockey player, with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, the minor league farm team for the Washington Capitals.
‘‘Just to see him out in his uniform, that was a big thrill,” Marion Werner said. ‘‘That was just sort of a turning point for me, that this is really happening.”
Stephen, who grew up on Delfield Street in Section 5 of the Village of Chevy Chase, signed a three-year deal with the Washington Capitals organization in March just after finishing his senior year season playing for the University of Massachusetts. He joined Hershey for the last handful of games of the regular season and practiced with the team during their championship run.
Stephen will most likely play for Hershey this season as well, though he hopes to impress his hometown team at the Washington Capitals training camp next month.
‘‘Just like anybody else, my goal in training camp is to do my best and show the Caps what I have,” Stephen said in a recent phone interview while driving to his training facility in Winchester, Mass.
Reaching the next level in the game is something Werner has specialized in since he was kid.
‘‘In this area, people always said...nobody from this area’s really going anywhere,” Anthony said.
Stephen debunked that myth by leaving Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School after his sophomore year to join the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., leading to gold medal performances in the 2001 World Under-17 Championships in Nova Scotia and the 2002 World Under-18 Championships in Piestanv, Slovakia.
Stephen’s parents said they are looking forward to the season, not only to watch their son begin his pro career, but also to enjoy the luxury of having him close to home. After years of traveling the country and the world to compete against the top players, not to mention four years of college in Massachusetts, a two-hour drive to Hershey, Pa., is a nice change of pace.
‘‘Having him leave home then [to play for national team in Ann Arbor], it was never any question,” Marion said. ‘‘But it was rough on the family, we really missed him.”
His family’s sacrifices over the years of time and money are not lost on Stephen.
‘‘My parents were always willing to take me to the rink,” he said. ‘‘When I first started, we had to play at 5:45 in the morning out at Cabin John and they would take turns. As I got older, and with the traveling to Philadelphia and New Jersey and New York, it got pretty intense. One of my parents, if not both, were taking time off work and making sacrifices to get me to my games.”
Seeing his son develop, not just as a player and an athlete, but as a young man who is generous with his time, modest of his abilities and loyal to his friends made it all worth it, Anthony said.
‘‘It was certainly nothing we pushed,” he said. ‘‘It was his motivation all the way.”
One of Anthony’s favorite memories, for example, is of a 9-year-old Stephen taking his skates to a nearby Chevy Chase park where a large puddle had frozen over.
‘‘We went over at one point to get him and he had taken a little bag of rice crackers and he was just sort of lying there with his shirt off, completely exhausted eating his crackers,” Anthony Werner said. ‘‘He would just play and play and play.”
Being on skates and going fast is what drew Stephen to the sport in the first place, he said. He played both hockey and lacrosse for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School — where his sister Alison Werner is a standout field hockey player — but lacrosse was never quite fast enough.
‘‘I loved the skating part of it and just the speed of the sport,” he said. ‘‘A lot of kids in Maryland grow up playing lacrosse, and it’s a very similar game as lacrosse, only it’s a quite a bit faster.”
Stephen’s skating ability and speed are his best attributes, he said. In fact, he believes his speed and skating are right about where they should be to make it to the NHL. It’s his brain that needs to catch up, he said.
‘‘If you compare the NHL to the level of the American Hockey League and college, it’s so much faster and the decision making is faster,” he said. ‘‘I need to get my skills and my thinking to the same speed as my skating in order to be effective at that level. I just need to work on making decisions faster and making the plays that I can make.”