Stafford gets long awaited taste of NHL action

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive

stafford-g_200.jpgGrand Rapids Griffins defenseman Garrett Stafford jokingly refers to himself as a “Super Vet.” His American Hockey League career reached 350 games on Mar. 6, with the first 345 of those coming before he tasted his first NHL action.

On Feb. 23, Stafford received the call that sent him to General Motors Place in Vancouver to make his NHL debut with the visiting Detroit Red Wings.

Following the Griffins’ 1-0 home win over the Manitoba Moose on Feb. 22, the fifth-year pro was informed of his recall, and he jumped on a flight early the next morning. Running on pure adrenaline after already enduring a long day of travel spanning three time zones, Stafford logged 8:29 of ice time and recorded one shot during his first NHL contest. He became the 91st Griffins alumnus to play in the big league.

“Obviously, it was an unbelievable experience to get a taste of the NHL and be out there with the best players in the world,” said the 28-year-old. “When you think about the small percentage of people that get to achieve that, and then to actually be on the ice making plays, it was unbelievable.”

While there may be a small number of players that gets to live the NHL dream, Stafford walked into a Red Wings dressing room with a high concentration of both current and former Griffins. The Los Angeles native joined four of his Grand Rapids teammates – goaltender Jimmy Howard, center Mark Hartigan and fellow defensemen Kyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson – who were already helping fill the void of injured Wings.

Stafford, who appeared in two games during his stint with the parent club, felt at ease upon his arrival, thanks in part to all the familiar faces. But his presence was also welcomed with open arms by Detroit’s veterans, as nearly every member of the depleted squad personally greeted him.

“I was kind of taken back at how accepting and gracious everyone was,” Stafford said. “Seriously, every guy on the team came up to me and told me it was great to have me there and that they really needed me right then. It was actually pretty flattering.”

For a moment, “Super Vet” had become the young kid on the block, sitting back and trying to learn rather than guiding others, as he is used to doing at the AHL level. One of the Griffins’ captains, Stafford has been a steady leader throughout the 2007-08 season.

“I am actually very quiet and not much of a rah-rah guy,” said Stafford. “I just try to do my job and lead by setting a good example. But I enjoy the role and being someone the guys can look to.”

With an exercise science and nutrition degree from the University of New Hampshire, eating right and staying in tip-top shape is second nature for Stafford. He is often seen with a protein shake in hand following practice while getting ready for an off-ice workout, which is the kind of commitment head coach Mike Stothers enjoys seeing in his captains.

“Stafford is a guy that is very professional and goes about his business in the right way each day. He prepares himself well by eating right and working out,” Stothers commented. “He is a quiet guy who leads with his actions and is an overall good leader for this team.”

Having rebounded from a pair of injuries this season, including a charley horse that had just sidelined him for five contests, Stafford recorded five points (two goals, three assists) in the seven games leading up to his recall.

stafford-g2_200.jpg“I think he was playing the best hockey that we have seen out of him all year,” Stothers said. “Who would have thought that the Red Wings would have had as many injuries as they did on defense, but it allowed Stafford the opportunity to go up for a couple games, and I thought he played very well.”

Throughout his career Stafford has been known as an offensive defenseman. His lowest pro point total came during his sophomore AHL campaign with the 2004-05 Cleveland Barons, when he still tallied a respectable 24 points (6g, 18a). However, that same season he placed third among league blueliners with four shootout goals and scored the deciding goal during an AHL-record 16-round shootout.

Proving to be a threat in the extra session, Stafford displayed his shootout abilities for Griffins fans on Dec. 12 when he provided another game-deciding tally in thrilling fashion. With Hamilton netminder Yann Danis retreating into his net, Stafford faked to his backhand, pulled the puck far across to his right and slipped it across the line while being upended, securing a 2-1 win and igniting the Griffins’ faithful.

While spending the previous four seasons within the San Jose Sharks organization as a member of the Barons and Worcester Sharks, Stafford put up great numbers and hauled in some impressive accolades.

After signing with the organization as an undrafted free agent, Stafford was named to both the AHL’s All-Rookie Team and Second All-Star Team in 2003-04. He led Cleveland defensemen and tied for third overall on the club with 46 points (12g, 34a), which also ranked sixth among AHL defensemen and seventh among rookies.

That trend of ranking among his team leaders has followed him throughout his AHL career and to Grand Rapids. Last season he led Worcester defensemen in all point categories and tied for eighth in scoring among league blueliners with 41 points (11g, 30a). This season, he ranks fourth on the Griffins with 32 points (8g, 24a) with just under one quarter of the schedule remaining.

Of course, Stafford hopes to eventually carry his high-scoring ways over to a full-time gig in the NHL, a league that seldom represents the dreams of southern Californians.

“That dream is never going to die for me,” said Stafford, who was drawn to the sport after watching a Kings practice at a young age. “Now I know I can play at that level. I just feel like I need the opportunity to really prove myself and a chance to play more than a couple games so I can really excel.”

With any luck, Stafford’s impressive AHL resume, combined with his intelligence and reliability as a defenseman, will eventually earn him a permanent job on an NHL blue line. But until that day comes, “Super Vet” will feed off his brief taste to fuel his passion to return.