Derek Sheppard isn’t afraid of a fight. The 6-foot, 215-pound Charlotte Checkers defenseman is a strong presence on the ice, making opponents think twice before engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior. There are certainly two sides to this player, but those sides aren’t as different as one might think.
Sheppard grew up around hockey in his native Ontario. He watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday and began playing at an early age, joining the Ontario Junior Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League until he attended college, where he played for York University in Toronto for another four years.
Upon graduation, Derek was picked up by the Carolina Hurricanes organization, starting his career with the minor league ECHL affiliate at the time, the Florida Everblades. He was called up to Charlotte at the end of December 2018, and was an integral part of the team’s run that resulted in its first Calder Cup last season, scoring a game-winning goal against the Hershey Bears on May 3.
Sheppard has a versatile playing style that allows him to shift from defense to a forward position when called upon, making him an asset to the organization. Some have referred to him as an enforcer — the guy a team can count on to hold others accountable on the ice — and though he’s certainly more than that, it’s not a role he shies away from.
“I don’t care who you are, no one likes fighting,” he told me after a recent Saturday night game at Bojangles’ Coliseum. “It’s a part of the game … I like standing up for my teammates, protecting my teammates and that’s kind of where I see my role. It’s just one of those things that stems from my upbringing, my character, things like that, and I want to make my teammates feel safe and make sure no one’s getting hurt or getting taken advantage of.”
Sheppard acknowledged that the NHL is weeding out the enforcer role as much as they can, but doesn’t see it disappearing entirely.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to ban it. I think that would cause more issues than the way it is right now,” he said, a fresh nick on his chin from the rough 3-2 loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. “I think with how fast the game is and how competitive guys are, grown men competing on a night-to-night basis playing each other six, seven, eight times a year, sometimes temperatures boil over and that happens and everyone who plays hockey kind of knows that it’s a potential risk, but it’s our job.”
The rosters of minor league hockey teams run the gamut of potential, from first-round draft picks just warming up for a long NHL career to players who see the experience as one stop in their life’s journey. Sheppard acknowledged he may not be a hockey player for life, and he takes a pragmatic approach to his hockey career.
“It’s something that for me personally is a year-to-year thing,” he said. “It all depends on opportunity and I’d like to chase it as long as I can but there’s also the reality thing, where there’s a certain point you can’t keep chasing the dream so it’s time you gotta move on if it’s not there anymore.”
Looking forward, Sheppard’s role as an enforcer and protector on the Checkers might act as preparation beyond his hockey career. At 25 years old, he already has a plan in place for what he might do next in his life, as he shared a desire to ultimately join the Toronto Police Service as an officer. His father worked as a homicide detective for over 30 years, and Sheppard sees the work as a way to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career that suits his passion and personality, being someone that loves helping others.
When asked how he spends his off-time, Sheppard at first sounded like most of the other guys, talking about video games and golf. He cited restaurants in the Plaza Midwood/Elizabeth area like Yafo Kitchen and Viva Chicken as frequent favorite spots for the team. He also said he enjoys going golfing any time the weather is accommodating.
Going deeper, however, Sheppard shared about the time he spends volunteering at a local coffee shop, Haerfest Roasting Co. in west Charlotte, which is a sponsor of the Checkers. The shop provides employment opportunities for people with special needs, who do everything from the artwork on the bags to roasting, grinding, packaging and delivery.
“The owner Toby Foreman is a great man and I’ve gotten along really well with him this year,” Sheppard said. “It kind of puts a lot of things into perspective; how lucky we are to be hockey players … This is something to give back and honestly they probably do more for me than I do for them, so I just think it’s a really great program they’re running there and it’s something I enjoy in my free time.”
On the ice, Derek Sheppard is a force to be reckoned with — earning a total of 12 minutes in the penalty box during one of his first home games with the Checkers in January for roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct stemming from a fight — but off the ice he’s a considerate, caring individual that loves giving back to the community.
Once he uncovered his motivations behind taking on that enforcer-type role for his team when needed, it became easy to reconcile these two sides as being built from the same foundation, that of an earnest desire to help and protect.