Stafford Hopes Hershey is Land of Opportunity

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

Hershey Bears defenseman Garrett Stafford is set to start his 10th pro season. At 32, Stafford is one of the team’s veteran leaders. He has 610 games worth of AHL experience and Hershey will be the eighth different AHL club for which he has toiled. That gives him one more AHL city than NHL games played. Those seven games worth of NHL experience have come with three different clubs – Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix – and they’ve been spread out over three different seasons starting with the Wings in their Cup-winning campaign of 2007-08. But Stafford believes he is capable of playing regularly in the NHL, and that’s why he signed a contract with the Caps last July. “I know I can play full-time in the NHL,” declares Stafford. “I feel like I just need a chance and the right person liking me and giving me a real opportunity to show what I can do. I feel like I am a very skilled player at this level. I feel like if I am around other players who are really skilled, it’s going to make me that much better. I just need that chance.” The Caps are fairly well fortified on the blueline; the off-season signing of Jack Hillen leaves them with eight defensemen who played in the NHL last season, plus well-regarded first-year pro Cameron Schilling. But Stafford has been beating the odds since he first laced on the skates. Roller skates. Born in Los Angeles, Stafford was one of many impressionable youngsters who were influenced by the Kings’ acquisition of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in 1988. But Stafford came to the game before The Great One came to Southern California. “I started before him,” notes Stafford,of Gretzky’s arrival in L.A. “I was seven when I started; he came when I was [eight]. But it was definitely a huge influence on the area and me and a lot of kids in Southern California.” Stafford discovered hockey almost by accident, then had to pay some dues before he could actually take to the ice. “The story goes: It was a summer vacation and my mom took my sister and I public skating,” relates Stafford. “It must have been in September because the Kings happened to be practicing. I stayed and watched the practice. I was a little kid, wide-eyed and just in awe. “I turned to my mom and said, ‘I want to play hockey.’ And then she made me learn how to roller-skate for three months in my driveway because it was so expensive to play [hockey]. And then I started. The rest is history.” Scouts and schools weren’t scouring Southern California for hockey talent when Stafford was playing youth hockey, so his hockey travelogue odyssey started early. “I was born and raised [in L.A.] and then I left when I was 16 to go to the USHL,” says Stafford. “I played in Des Moines for three years and then got my scholarship to New Hampshire. I played there for four years and then I turned pro.” Stafford was passed over in the NHL draft, but he maintained a working relationship with the hometown Kings while he was pursuing his degree in exercise science and playing four seasons at University of New Hampshire. He was named to the Hockey East second all-star team as a junior and to HE’s all-tournament team as a senior. Stafford was 23 when he finished school, but he wanted to pursue a pro career rather than put his degree to use. “It was just a situation where I wasn’t drafted and I was training with the Kings my entire college career; in the summers I’d be training with the Kings,” he recalls. “And then I went to rookie camp with the Kings [after graduating] but they didn’t have enough room for me, so I went to Dallas’ main camp. It was the same situation there; they said, ‘We like you, we just don’t have a contract to give you.’ “So I went on a PTO [professional try out] to Cleveland, which was San Jose’s [farm] team. I didn’t play the first game, played the second and did all right. And then in the third game, I scored and it kind of snowballed from there. I started playing really well and was lucky enough to sign an NHL contract in December of that year. I’ve kind of been the underdog ever since, but have kept it going from there.” Stafford made a terrific splash with Cleveland as a first-year pro in the Sharks’ organization in 2003-04, totaling a dozen goals and 46 points to easily outpace all defensemen on the team in all offensive categories. After three seasons in Cleveland, Stafford stayed in the San Jose chain when the Sharks shifted to Worcester for the 2006-07 season. He averaged 10 goals and just under 40 points a season in those four years in the Sharks’ organization, but his first taste of the NHL life didn’t come until 2007-08 after he signed with Detroit. Stafford was 28 when he got the call to the show late in the ’07-08 season. “It was an amazing feeling to just put that jersey with the history,” says Stafford, “and to be in that locker room and see all the pictures and all the guys over the years. It was just an amazing feeling. “To be playing with Nick Lidstrom your first NHL game, I was awestruck. It was a simple game, that’s for sure. It was a lot of fun. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was actually in Vancouver on Saturday night – Hockey Night In Canada – it was just crazy. I’ll never forget that.” “Everyone in that organization from [Detroit general manager] Kenny Holland down was so great to me. [Wings head coach] Mike Babcock was amazing. I couldn’t say anything more. Everyone was a class act.” Stafford got into two games with the Red Wings that season. He signed a two-year deal with Dallas prior to the 2008-09 season, and collected his first two NHL points – both assists – for the Stars in a March 30, 2009 game against Phoenix. Stafford got into three games with Dallas late that season, and two more with Phoenix in 2010-11. He spent most of last season with the Montreal organization, coming to the Habs in an October trade with the Coyotes. He has also made AHL stops in Grand Rapids, San Antonio, Austin, Portland and Hamilton. Over the years, he’s seen a lot of young players come and go. Some fizzled out, some moved up and prospered in the NHL. As a guy who was overlooked in the draft more than a decade ago, Stafford has had to work harder for what he has achieved. “That’s been the story of my career,” says Stafford. “Just coming from California, it’s always been like that. Even in college, I was a nobody coming in but then I made myself somebody. That’s kind of been my mentality. I don’t mind being the underdog. I’d rather achieve more than is expected than to be one of those guys who has been given everything but doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s something that drives me. I’ve always tried to use that negative energy and us that as a positive.” Stafford has been remarkably consistent over the years. In nine AHL seasons, he has rolled up 92 goals and 253 assists for 345 points in 610 career games. He has notched double-digit goal totals in six of those nine seasons, and his hard right-handed shot has proven to be a valuable power-play weapon. Stafford scored eight of his nine goals on the man-advantage last season. As his pro career has progressed, Stafford has made himself a better player in his own end, and he believes that’s been the biggest improvement in his game since he turned pro. “It’s a huge difference,” he says. “I am so much better defensively. I think the game. The game has just become simpler to me as I’ve gotten older. “As a defenseman, it’s definitely been a progression. I’ve always been good offensively; the instincts have been good. Something that has maybe been knocking me down in the past is that I wasn’t that good defensively, but now I feel like I am really solid defensively. That’s been the result of working at it and working at it and being told that maybe that’s what I really need to work on. I feel like I’ve really stepped up and improved my game that way.” When free agency season opens on July 1 of each summer, most of the focus is on the established NHL players and where they’ll sign. But although he hasn’t yet cracked through and established himself as an NHL regular, Stafford has found his services in demand whenever he has been a free agent. “Every time I’ve been a free agent I’ve signed on July 1 or July 2,” he notes. “I’m on the very upper echelon of the AHL level, so there is always a team looking for that depth guy. It’s always been a very quick decision. There have always been a handful of teams, this is the offer and they want a decision right away, so it’s always been very fast for me.” Signing with Washington was an attractive option this time around, because the Caps have promoted similar defensemen Bryan Helmer and Brian Fahey in recent seasons. “For me, I just want to play in the NHL so I’m just looking for a place where feel like I’m actually going to get a chance to play,” says Stafford. “In the past, Washington has called up a lot of defensemen who are in my situation. That’s all I can ask for, really.” Over the years, he has had the opportunity to play in Hershey as a visiting player, and he knows that it’s as a good a spot as there is in the AHL. “You look around and this is almost like an NHL situation here,” Stafford declares. “This is a great place to be. I love the game. I feel like I’m becoming a craftsman; just getting better and better and thinking the game better. And now it’s changed for me where I am in a leadership position. I’ve got a lot to teach these kids. I’m not a rah-rah guy, but I definitely like to lead by example.” He can definitely expect to log a lot of ice time with the Bears, and he’ll be counted on to help nurture younger blueliners like Dmitry Orlov. As a bonus, he and his teammates are now being seen by the watchful eyes of the Caps’ coaching staff, which has been reassigned to Hershey for the duration of the ongoing NHL lockout. It’s a unique opportunity for Stafford to open the eyes that matter. “All eyes are on us,” he says. “It’s the best league in the world right now. We’re going to get a lot more coverage and a lot more people watching that usually wouldn’t be, so it’s a great opportunity.” While reaching and staying in the NHL remains his driving ambition, Stafford is in no hurry to hang up his skates and put his degree to work. “I’ve been around,” he says. “It’s been a journey. I’ve been a lot of places in the AHL. It’s been a good ride. This is my 10th year pro, and I have nothing to complain about. I feel like I have been stepping up more and more every year. “I love the life. I don’t personally think I’ll ever work a nine to five job. For anyone, this is the dream. There is nothing better. It’s tough, it’s demanding and it’s cut-throat, but it’s rewarding at the same time – really rewarding.”

next up:

Coaches Concentrate on Communication

January 14, 2013

Upon taking the reins as the Capitals’ head coach last June, Adam Oates made it clear that communication with players would be a primary part of his coaching repertoire. But until the ongoing NHL lockout is solved, Oates is doing his coaching in Hershey, where he shares the bench duties for the AHL


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