Stefanos Lekkas holding the Clark Cup high despite suffering multiple shoulder injuries that season. Photo by Brandon Anderson.
Dear Stampede Country,
Although I didn't know you existed four years ago, I'm sitting here today thanking you for the best ride of my life. For those who don't know my story, this is a letter to you.
On May 1, 2012 I found myself nervously watching a live broadcast of the USHL Phase I Draft, at my house in Elburn, IL. I wouldn't have been able to tell you where Sioux Falls was on a map. I knew I had a good chance of being selected, but didn't know what round or by which team. After a while, in the 4th round a voice said, “With the 52nd overall pick, the Sioux Falls Stampede select 5'9” 145 lb. goaltender Stefanos Lekkas.” My first and last names were mispronounced.
I had talked to a few teams before the draft, but Sioux Falls was not one of them.... or so I thought. Moments later I received a phone call from Kevin Hartzell, and then it all made sense. About a month prior to the draft my dad and I sat down with Hartzell at the USHL Combine and we talked for close to an hour. He told us he worked with the Stampede goalies and his son was a former Stampede goalie (Eric Hartzell). What he didn't mention to us was that he was also the head coach and general manager of the Stampede. I was so excited to get the process going of being a Stampede prospect. Less than a week later Hartzell stepped down as head coach. I became unsure if I was ever going to put on the Sioux Falls sweater.
The season after I was drafted, I played with the Chicago Mission (HPHL) and had a cup of coffee with the Springfield Jr. Blues (NAHL). After the conclusion of my season new head coach Cary Eades invited me to visit Sioux Falls for the last week of the season. It was a no brainier for me. I missed a week of school and was on my way to South Dakota. I showed up to the rink a small, and nervous kid. Charlie Lindgren was the superstar goalie in Sioux Falls at the time. “Chuck” (who is my favorite goalie) took me under his wing and taught me so much in that one week. I got the chance to back up Chuck in the last game of the season. I was in awe. The professionalism of the game day process, the fast pace of the game and the thousands of fans at the game was something I had never seen before. I knew right away that Sioux Falls was where I wanted to be.
I remember taking a tour of the rink with assistant coach Dallas Steward before I left town. Across the street from the old Sioux Falls Arena was a huge unfinished building. It reminded me of the Roman Coliseum, unfinished, beams everywhere. It was massive. The Denny Sanford Premier Center was being built. Dallas told me that day that the coaching staff wanted me to be the starting goalie in this rink. Looking at the building, I couldn't even imagine how it would look when it was eventually finished two seasons later. I knew at that point that the coaching staff was building for something in the near future. The coaches were putting the pieces in place.
Stefanos Lekkas playing with the NAHL Springfield Jr. Blues. Photo courtesy of Springfield Jr. Blues.
Entering my senior year of high school, I was the final cut from the Stampede. I was crushed. I had doubts if I was going to ever play there again. Looking back now, being cut was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. I began my junior hockey career with the Springfield Jr. Blues in the NAHL. I played a ton of games and my game began to elevate. I ended up being named North Division Goalie of the Year and was placed on the All-NAHL rookie team. I also accepted my scholarship to play Division 1 Hockey at the University of Vermont. I was making a name for myself in the hockey world. I really have my coach Tony Zasowski to thank for jump-starting my career. The NAHL is generally an older league, but he took a chance on taking an undersized seventeen-year old goalie. (I grew since the Draft, but not by much. I was 5'11” on a good day.) He saw my competitiveness and work ethic instead of my size, and I owe a lot of my success to him.
After my season in Springfield, I got called up to Sioux Falls again. After a good week of practice I had the chance to backup another game. This time I got put into the game halfway through. It happened so fast. I didn't have time to think or be nervous, I just got thrown into a storm. A few seconds later I was playing in a USHL game. I won't ever forget my first shot on goal. Omaha came down on a 2-on-1 and made a cross ice pass for a one timer. Goalies everywhere know this is not ideal. I slid over and faced the hardest shot I had seen up to that point in my career. The puck smoked me in the head and went ten rows out of play.
Did I get lucky? 100% yes.
"The only places you could compare the “Denny” to were NHL arenas." Photo by Brandon Anderson.
I stopped the rest of the shots I faced too, and we almost came back to win. I knew after that game that I would be on the team the next year.
The next season, the Stampede became the talk of junior hockey across America. We were now playing in the Denny Sanford Premier Center. The only places you could compare the “Denny” to were NHL arenas. We knew how lucky we were to be there. However, our team that only had four returners started slow - really slow. But, we had the best group of guys I had ever played with. We were literally a group of 22 best friends. We wanted to play for each other. Nobody was selfish. There were no egos, and we had fun. It was an absolute pleasure showing up to the rink every day with those guys.
Just about every day while we were getting ready for practice Parker Tuomie, Troy Loggins and Dakota Joshua would be dancing in everyone’s face to some rap song until about five minutes before practice started. This was truly one of the most fun years of hockey I played. Our team was so close on and off the ice, and it started to translate in the standings. We became one of the best teams in the second half of the year. Coach Eades made one final trade before playoffs, acquiring Mikey Eyssimont. To put it lightly, Mikey and I did not like each other very much up to this point. Growing up playing against each other we always butted heads. But, even though I'd never admit it to him, I still thought he was one of the best players I've played against. He was the last piece to the puzzle, and I'm happy we got him because he became one of my best friends.
We were ready for the Clark Cup Playoffs.
We went into playoffs that year as the last four seed. We weren't picked to win a single game. But, its funny what can happen in playoffs. We went into the post-season with no intentions of leaving Sioux Falls early. We loved coming to the rink everyday and battling for each other. It didn't matter who we were playing, what the matchups were, or what seed we were ranked. We wanted to keep playing in Sioux Falls.
Thinking about it now, I don't even think we realized the magnitude of what we were doing while it was happening. We took down the number one team in the West in five games. Sioux City had dominated us during the regular season. We won the series on the road with 1,000 Stampede fans who made the trip down to Sioux City. We heard them all night.
The Sioux Falls Stampede rush down to Stefanos Lekkas to celebrate their Clark Cup Championship. Photo courtesy of Stefanos Lekkas.
In the Western Conference Final we beat the Tri-City Storm in four games. They had arguably the most offensively skilled team I had played against. We split the on the road and brought an even series back to the Denny. I remember game three was tied with about a minute left. Our captain found a loose puck in the corner and banked it in off of their goalie. That was the moment where I knew we were going to win it all. I have never heard a rink so loud. The building was shaking, and I get chills thinking about it.
We had advanced to the Clark Cup Final.
Like every other game that season, we went in viewed as the underdogs. But what the average hockey viewer doesn't always see is will. The Stampede motto is “Outwork Outwill.” There are giant posters lining the walls in the locker room that say that. In the Final that was exactly what we did. We swept Muskegon in three games and won the Clark Cup at home. 9,000 fans all wearing blue shirts were in attendance, and they created the loudest atmosphere possible. You couldn't even yell at the person next to you. It was so loud. The moments that followed the final buzzer were better than anything I could have ever imagined. Sharing it with my team, in the Denny, with my family there was unbelievable. I will be an old man one day, still telling stories about it.
In my opinion, one of the coolest parts of that night was all 22 guys had the Clark Cup in our locker room after the game. We stayed there for two hours. Nobody wanted to leave. Even though we won our last game, no one wanted to leave this group. When I get asked about my favorite moments from winning the Clark Cup, my response is having my family on the ice and enjoying that moment in the locker room with the guys in the rink we built.
2015 Clark Cup Champions Sioux Falls Stampede. Photo by Brandon Anderson.
A lot of people didn’t know this would be my last time on the ice for the next five months. I had been dealing with shoulder issues since Springfield and it got worse over time. It dislocated several times throughout the year. From December until the end of the season I was spending up to two hours a day in the training room with our trainer Matt Hunter. Every bit of success I had in Sioux Falls can be credited to him. I would not have been able to play if it wasn't for Matty. Another thing people forget is that Matty broke his back earlier in the year. One doctor told him that he wouldn't walk again. He was back in four months. Matty and I shared a moment after we won the Cup that I won't ever forget. He hugged me and said our work is done. We don't have to worry anymore, this pain is done. I will forever be thankful for that.
After a tough summer of rehab, I was ready for my final season with the Stampede. I missed the first five games of the season; that was tough. I was not used to watching games in the stands. My first game back was special. I was announced as the starting goalie, and as my name came over the loudspeaker the building erupted. It was a very familiar sound. Almost laughing, smiling ear to ear, a few of the boys joked, “Must be nice Stef!” I remember thinking, “What did I do to deserve this much love?” A couple of years ago I didn't know where the city of Sioux Falls was. But that's the thing. This is a hockey city. Not just a junior hockey city, but one of the best cities to play in the country at any level. They love their players unconditionally and show it every night.
This season saw a lot of similarities to the previous one. Our locker room was awesome once again. We had a lot of new faces, but the new guys could not have been better teammates. We had another big group of best friends. We were picked to finish 14th in the league and miss the playoffs in preseason USHL Power Rankings. We loved it. It fired us up. The winning tradition we built over the years was so much stronger than any ranking system.
We had one of the youngest teams in the league this year and outworked and outwilled high caliber teams as we made Clark Cup Playoffs, again. We had a new head coach, Scott Owens who I quickly became a big fan of. We also finished with the best home record in the Western Conference. In the playoffs we lost to the Tri-City Storm and were eliminated. Anyone who watched or followed the series shoul tip their hat to them. They were playing great hockey. We lost our final game at home. As the clock wound down I took a knee in my crease. The same crease that I jumped out of and threw my helmet off in celebration just one year ago. The crease where I made a name for myself. It all hit me at once… It was over.
Stefanos Lekkas takes a knee in the crease as his junior hockey career comes to and end. Photo courtesy of Stefanos Lekkas.
My time in Sioux Falls is coming to an end. After our meetings in the locker room after the game most of the guys shook away a few tears and got undressed. Lawton Courtnall, Parker Tuomie, Chaz Switzer and I kept our jerseys on and went out to center ice. For an hour. Not many words were said. We just looked around, soaked it all in and reminisced. I was lucky enough to have my dad come out on the ice with me and share one of the proudest moments of my career with him.
When thinking about my time in Sioux Falls there is one word I think of. Home. Sioux Falls will forever be my home. Some of my best memories were made here. Some of my greatest friendships were created here. I cannot thank the city of Sioux Falls enough for what it has given me. They welcomed me, and my family, with open arms. My mom, Lisa, who was able to make it to 80% of my games, home and away, is a celebrity at the Denny. There have been times where people wearing Lekkas jerseys find her in the rink and ask to take a picture with her. My older brother, Stelios, who is training for physical therapy school, was able to join the team as he shadowed our trainer Matt Hunter for a period of time. My younger brother, Evangelos, was invited to try out for the Jr. Stampede AAA team next month. I will absolutely be making that trip.
I also want to thank the coaches I have had during my time in Sioux Falls. It was a privilege and a pleasure to play for you guys. Thank you for giving me the chance to prove myself. I couldn't have asked for anything more. I'm happy to call you allfriends. Not many players can say that about coaches.
I loved every minute of playing in Sioux Falls, including everything from the long road trips to having off days on Sundays, to getting matching Clark Cup Champions tattoos with ten of the guys. But most of all, I loved being around such a great group of guys every single day. It was an honor. You guys are all friends for life and I can't thank you enough.
Junior hockey serves the purpose of developing players and preparing them for college hockey and hopefully one day pro. My experiences have shaped the person I am today, and I can honestly say my time in Sioux Falls has exceeded my expectations in preparing and developing me for the next level. I am excited for what the future holds and excited to attend and play hockey at the University of Vermont in the Fall.
As Nuttle, Nails and Mikey would always say... Best job I've ever had.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.