Former Phantom Stafford answers call to do more

by Adam Kimelman ||

Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens was involved in two Calder Cup championships with the Philadelphia Phantoms, one as a player and one as a coach.

In his office hangs one photo from the 2005 team, which he guided to the American Hockey League championship. He could have others, but the one he has in a prominent spot near his desk is the one that means the most to him.

It’s Ben Stafford, drenched in sweat, already wearing his championship cap, who scored the Cup-clinching goal that finished a sweep of the Chicago Wolves in the final.

“Ben’s one of those guys you have on your team you take for granted,” said Stevens, who spent six years with the Phantoms before taking over the Flyers in 2006. “I used to call him the Golden Citizen.”

Instead of the Golden Citizen — or “Ducky,” his nickname from his turn as an uncredited skater in the Mighty Ducks movie — friends can address him by his military rank.

After graduating Yale University, Stafford played pro hockey for four seasons, starting with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL. His 22 goals and 61 points in 58 games were second on the team, and earned him call-ups to the Phantoms, the Saint John Flames and Providence Bruins.

The next season, Stafford made the Phantoms out of training camp and stayed there for the next three seasons.

“He could play on your fourth line or your first line,” said Stevens, who took an immediate shine to Stafford. “He could play five minutes or 15 minutes and he was your best five-minute player or your best 15-minute player. He was willing to do whatever he could do to help the team.”

Stafford had a number of fine moments with the Phantoms. He scored 39 goals in the regular season, including the overtime winner in November 2004 that set the club record with a 10-game win streak.

After the championship season, Stafford married girlfriend Ali, and decided to put his Ivy League education to use, retiring to enroll at Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

While he threw himself into a career in medicine, something else was tugging at him.

The atrocities of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected everyone differently. Stafford had considered quitting his hockey career then and enlisting in the military. But in January 2002 he met Ali, which was motivation to stay close.

All through the twists and turns of the minor-league life, on and off the ice, he followed current events. Even through all the time and stress of medical school, the desire to do something, to get involved, to help defend the things he believed in, pulled on him like the rolling tide.

stafford-b2_200.jpgSix years after the attacks, Ben Stafford finally gave in and started his third career.

“It was something he’d been thinking about for a long time, even when he was playing hockey,” said Ali. “Then he got into medical school, but even when he was in medical school he felt he still really wanted to do this.”

“This” was drop out of Jefferson and join the United State Marine Corps. It could have been a stunning blow to a new bride, but Ali says she never discouraged her husband.

“For all the time I’ve known him, for six years, he’s considered doing this,” she said. “I want him to be happy, I want him to do what he feels strongly about.”

Going oversees, to fight in a war that already has cost so many their lives, is hard to fathom for someone like Stafford – a young man, new husband, Ivy League-educated, medical student. If he wants to help the war effort so much, why not stay in medical school and work at a Veterans Administration hospital like Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C.?

“He wants to do something more,” Ali said simply.

While telling his wife went fairly easily, it was the other people in his life – family and friends – that needed more convincing. Telling his parents back home in Edina, Minn., made for what Ali called, “a weird time.”

Derek Settlemyre, the Flyers’ head equipment manager who had served a similar role with the Phantoms, was stunned at his friend’s revelation.

“I was in disbelief,” he said. “It was a game day. We were meeting up later to go to a show and he called and said I wanted to tell you this.”

Settlemyre’s first inclination was to change his friend’s mind, but he saw quickly it would be a futile attempt.

“He feels strongly about it. Anything you say he comes back with an answer. That’s what he believes. … Any point I had, he countered.”

Another friend who learned early was former teammate Antero Niittymaki. Niittymaki had served his compulsory stint in the Finnish military before coming to America to play for the Phantoms, and the current Flyers’ backup netminder said Stafford would often pepper him with military-related questions.

“He always asked me lots of questions and he always read books about Army stuff,” said Niittymaki. “He always liked that stuff. It’s a big change from playing hockey and going to medical school, that’s one thing. To drop that and go to the (Marines) … that’s what he likes to do, so that’s what he should go do.”

Part of Stafford’s induction – besides the myriad forms he had to fill out as well as the physical tests he had to pass – included getting four letters of recommendation, much like a college entry packet. One of the people Stafford turned to was his former coach, Stevens.

“He told me what he was doing, and my concern was for Ali and his family,” said Stevens, “and he and Ali were firm with the decision he was making. I was more than happy to give him the letter of recommendation.”

While Stevens wouldn’t reveal what he wrote, he said, “it was pretty easy for me. As coaches you get to know these players very well, you get a read for their personality. The contributions they make in our game, it’s certainly not the military, but (hockey) is a pretty character-oriented sport where team is a big part of that.

“He’s got real strong beliefs as a citizen of this country, and he feels it’s part of his duty to serve this country. He was a History major (at Yale), he’s a well-educated guy. He feels this obligation to serve his country. I certainly think you have to respect him for that. I think that’s what made him such a team guy. I think it’s somewhat ironic that he scored the winning goal in our championship game but he’s just that guy that always has a good reason for what he does. He was a firm member of our team, he’s a firm citizen. After talking to him, you had a real appreciation for what he wanted to do.”

What he wants to do, though, is more dangerous that 99.9 percent of what happens in everyday life.

“I pay attention to what’s going on (in the news),” said Ali, “talk about it with Ben, how things are going. It doesn’t make a difference, really, in Ben’s decision either way.”