by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat
Second-year Springfield Thunderbirds defenseman Riley Stillman – son of two-time Stanley Cup champion and 17-year-pro forward Cory Stillman – is not the first son of a pro hockey player to follow in his dad’s footsteps, nor will he be the last.
Like others, he has had his jersey number honor his family, sporting his dad’s number 61 in Florida and Springfield in his rookie season. This year, Riley switched his number to 77 in honor of another family member, but more on that later.
What the 21-year-old Stillman has, above all else, is a family story that is so improbable, it would be scoffed at by Hollywood rom-com directors.
The tale begins with Mara Stefanski, a high school student in Ontario who, like many young girls her age, had her eyes on a young man in her class. She went home to tell her father, Bud, who at the time was coaching a Junior B hockey team in Peterborough. As is the norm for so many high schoolers experiencing first instances of love, Mara would start by just giving little details like “there was this cute guy at school.”
Later, Bud would tell his daughter of his praises for a young man set to try out for his team – a player he saw exhibit a great deal of skill and, in his eyes, had a chance to become a really productive player despite his youth.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and Mara and Cory had begun dating in what would become a case of high school sweethearts. To Bud’s shock, the conversation between him and his daughter earlier that year had an unthinkable connection: Mara and Bud had been describing the same boy.
“It’s funny how a lot is owed to the game, especially with how our lives are shaped out,” said Riley, recounting the improbable circumstances around his father’s connection to both. “They laugh about it now – they had been talking about (Cory) but they didn’t know it.”
Having already dated his future father-in-law’s daughter before becoming Bud’s own team player, Cory had won the good graces of the family, and seven years later, he and Mara would be married.
The connections did not end with the story of Cory and Mara’s first encounter. When Riley was selected by the Panthers and eventually began his pro career with Springfield last October, he also discovered he would not be the first member of his family to have a run-in with legendary longtime Springfield equipment manager Ralph Calvanese, who had Bud as a player during the 1982-83 season with the Springfield Indians.
Last summer, Riley came up with an idea to pay homage to his grandfather’s time in Springfield as well as his Calder Cup title days in Maine, where his number 77 hangs in the rafters in Portland.
The idea was to wear 77 in his AHL games, while maintaining his dad’s number 61 in Florida.
“I mentioned (wearing 77) to Ralphie last year, and he called me over the summer. He was ecstatic about the idea,” said Stillman. “He got to see Bud at the start of this season (to catch up) as well.”
Riley, of course, has gained a lot more than just a jersey number from his father and grandfather’s experience, too. As a six-year-old, he witnessed his father capture his lifelong dream when Cory won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, even after he scared his oldest son when he dropped the gloves with Calgary’s Andrew Ference in the series.
Two years later, Riley watched his dad win it again, this time with the Carolina Hurricanes. Each Cup win was the first in those franchises’ histories. The memories associated with the latter have stuck with Riley ever since.
“(Carolina) had a special group, but also a special group of families around the game. There was a big group of (players’ kids) around my age. Everyone (in Raleigh) was kind of getting their first experience of hockey in (the Carolinas),” Riley recalls. “It brought a lot of excitement going to the rink every day for me, watching him play and watching his team win the Cup.”
Like just about any Canadian kid, hockey was in Riley’s blood, but not to a point where it was forced upon him strictly based upon the connection with his NHL father.
“There was never any pressure to play (from my parents),” said Riley. “But in whatever I wanted to do, they told me to work as hard as I could to be the best. In the first grade, I wrote on a piece of paper, ‘I want to play in the NHL.’ I have dedicated my life to do that.”
Riley credits Dany Heatley and Scott Stevens as two of his notable hockey icons from his youth, but he always left the top spot for Dad, and in turn, Dad left Riley with simple, sound advice as he embarked on his junior career.
“Work hard and keep your mouth shut. That’s it,” Cory told his son.
Years later, Riley has never forgotten those seven words, and the corresponding spirit of competition has fueled him.
“(To me), keeping your mouth shut is just an old school way to talk about just going about your business and being who you are. At the end of the day, I’m one of those guys that all I want to do is win. That’s the way I was raised and that’s the way our household worked, whether it was cards, bowling, skiing – if (my brother Chase) did it this speed, I want to go faster. If (Chase) beat me, I’d say okay, I’m beating him tomorrow. There were a lot of fistfights that (came about) because somebody beat somebody.”
And while Riley Stillman likes to model his game as a modern-day version of Stevens – who shared cottage space on a nearby lake to the Stillmans – he continues to see himself as just one piece of the whole bigger, more important element: the team.
“My dad always told me, ‘The better the team does, the better individuals do. If the team does well, everybody does well.’”
Simplistic? Perhaps. But for Riley, that lesson has been central to him achieving that childhood dream written on a first-grade classroom paper.
Upon making his NHL debut, the reality of the moment reaffirmed his passion for the family’s game.
“(My debut) was awesome and nerve-wracking; it was like, ‘Okay, I’m here. Now this is a job. This is life.’ I still enjoy coming to the rink every day. I’m lucky to be able to play the best game in the world for a living.”