|Lee Stempniak recorded his second career hat trick on Jan. 21 in a 6-2 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton.
Pop quiz: Which member of the Calgary Flames achieved a significant milestone involving the number 500 earlier this month?
Of course the easy answer is that captain Jarome Iginla scored the 500th goal of his National Hockey League career during a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Jan. 7.
But dig a little deeper into the statistics and you’ll find that forward Lee Stempniak also reached a significant milestone when he suited up for his 500th career NHL contest three nights later.
“That’s a lot of games when you think about it,” said Stempniak, who was acquired in an off-season trade with the Phoenix Coyotes for Daymond Langkow. “I still remember my first game like it was yesterday. It’s amazing how quickly it’s gone by. You just try and soak as much in and really cherish every game and every day you’re in the NHL.”
To mark the memorable occasion, the 5-foot-11, 196-pound forward had a goal and an assist to lead the Flames to a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils.
“It’s great to get a win and score a goal and chip in that way,” said Stempniak, who hails from West Seneca, New York.
After two seasons of playing for the Buffalo Lightning of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League from 1999-2001, Stempniak was recruited to play for the Dartmouth Big Green.
In his second season at Dartmouth, Stempniak played on a line with highly-touted prospect Hugh Jessiman. With scouts coming out in droves to watch Jessiman, Stempniak also received a fair amount of attention.
“It was sort of an eye-opener,” said Stempniak, who finished the season with 21 goals and 28 assists in 34 games – two points ahead of Jessiman for the team lead in scoring. “I think that’s when it went from this dream that everyone had as a kid of making the NHL to something that was realistic and something to strive and work for.”
While Jessiman was taken 12th overall by the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Stempniak didn’t hear his name called until the fifth round (148th overall) when the St. Louis Blues selected him.
Stempniak went on to play two more seasons at Dartmouth before attending his first NHL training camp with the Blues in the fall of 2005.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Stempniak recalled. “I ended up making the team out of training camp and played a couple games.”
From telling his parents how excited he was to make his NHL debut to walking out of the dressing room and onto the ice, Stempniak has vivid memories of his first game on Oct. 6, 2005 against the Detroit Red Wings.
“It was a whirlwind,” he said. “It was against Detroit, the home opener in St. Louis. I lined up to start the game and I was against Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. I was a huge Steve Yzerman fan, so it was pretty special. I’m sure I was a little bit shell-shocked, but I remember everything about it.”
Well, except the score.
“I think we lost,” he remembered correctly.
For the record, Brendan Shanahan scored the game-winning goal as the Red Wings edged the Blues 4-3.
Stempniak also suited up for a 7-6 loss to the San Jose Sharks two nights later and was subsequently sent to the minors to play for the Peoria Rivermen.
He got called up again in November and sniped his first NHL goal during a 7-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. After scoring three goals and adding four assists in a 10-game span, Stempniak went the next 12 games without registering a point and found himself back in the minors.
“Then I got called back up right near the trade deadline and actually scored against Calgary,” said Stempniak, who scored once in regulation and then notched the game-winning goal against Miikka Kiprusoff in the fifth round of a shootout.
The result was a thrilling 3-2 win for the Blues at home over the Flames.
“That’s sort of when I think I got a big opportunity when they traded away a couple guys,” said Stempniak, who finished his rookie season with 14 goals and 13 assists in 57 games. “At that point we were out of the playoffs and it was one of those things when they let the young guys play. I played a lot and learned a lot.”
Despite getting hurt in the first game of his fourth season with the Blues, Stempniak later returned to the lineup and went on a tear with three goals and nine assists in an eight-game span.
For his efforts, the Blues traded Stempniak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Alexander Steen and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo.
“It was one of those things,” Stempniak said. “You know it’s a possibility. It definitely makes you take a step back. It was a shock. I really enjoyed my time in St. Louis. I’m really grateful that they gave me an opportunity.”
Stempniak went on to play 123 games over two seasons for Toronto before the Leafs traded him to the Coyotes for Matt Jones and a fourth and seventh round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
“Every time you’re traded, like I was traded here, it surprised me a little bit, but I don’t think there is that shock anymore,” said Stempniak, who has put up 12 goals and 12 assists in 49 games with the Flames this season. “You know it’s a possibility and you’re way more prepared to handle it.”
Through the first half of the season, Stempniak has often found himself on a line with centre Mikael Backlund, who has enjoyed playing alongside the veteran.
“He’s an easy guy to play with,” Backlund said. “He reads the game well. He has a good hockey IQ. He’s a two-way player who works hard at both ends and has a really good shot.”
Stempniak has enjoyed his time with Calgary so far and would definitely consider re-signing with the Flames when his contract expires after the season.
“I really like Calgary,” he said. “I would like to play here. It’s a great organization and they have a really good team. We’re figuring it out right now. We’re starting to play better and building to make a push to the playoffs.”
From his first memorable game against the Red Wings to his 500th contest against the Devils, Stempniak has enjoyed every moment of his NHL experience.
“Every day you’re living your dream and it’s such a remarkable thing when you sit back and think about it,” he said. “You just try and approach it that way – live each day to the fullest, get better and play well and take the next day as it comes.”