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It's unlikely other American soldiers in Iraq have taken a route even remotely similar to that of former Flyers farmhand Ben Stafford.
In about two years, Stafford, a 21st-century Renaissance man who graduated from Yale with a history degree, went from pro hockey player to medical school student to Marine.
He also found time to marry his wife, Ali, during that span.
Stafford, a forward who scored the winning goal when the AHL's Phantoms captured the Calder Cup in 2005, was deployed to Iraq on Oct. 5 and is an infantry platoon commander as a second lieutenant.
Flyers coach John Stevens coached the Minnesota-born Stafford with the Phantoms, and said he was a great leader and "low-maintenance guy" who always put the team first. Stevens keeps a photograph of Stafford, taken minutes after the Calder Cup triumph, in his office.
Jim McCrossin, the Flyers and Phantoms trainer, wears a dog tag with Stafford's name and rank. He frequently sends Philadelphia-style care packages - complete with Tastykakes, newspapers and non-perishable items - that Stafford and his platoon can use.
|Ben Stafford scored the game-winning goal in the Phantoms' Calder Cup-clinching game in 2005. |
In an e-mail exchange, Stafford, 30, who spent parts of four years in the Flyers' organization before enrolling at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, answered questions from Iraq about his amazing journey.Question: Do you miss hockey at all?
Answer: I do miss it. I didn't miss it for a little while after the Calder Cup in 2005, but in the past few years, it has gotten worse. I have to confess that I haven't put on skates since the Calder Cup in June 2005, more for a lack of opportunity than a lack of desire to play the game, however.
I especially miss it during the Stanley Cup playoffs. I haven't experienced them, but I think the playoffs, taken as a whole, are the most grueling and impressive sports tournament in the world.
Every play of every shift is critical for two straight months, and the games are so physical. I do know what the full AHL playoffs are like, and I can only imagine it at the next level. It's an incredible feat when you think about it.Q: Are you able to follow the Phantoms and Flyers on the Internet in Iraq?
A: I do follow them, but I'm not able to get to e-mail much, and our computers tend to be pretty slow and in high demand. More often during this deployment, I check up on the standings in two-week-old papers that Marines are sent by their families and get circulated through our platoon.Q: Why did you retire from hockey at such a relatively young age?
A: I wanted to play hockey for as long as I could, and would have kept playing if I thought I had a good shot at being a consistent NHLer. That didn't seem to be happening.
I was doing well in the AHL and enjoyed playing for the Phantoms, but I had other things on my mind, i.e. medicine and the military. I knew 2005 would be my last season before the playoffs started. Winning the Calder Cup was an added bonus on my way out.Q: Was becoming a doctor a longtime goal of yours?
A: It was, and I have tremendous respect for doctors and health professionals in general. They work hard and do such good and often selfless work.
I stay in touch with some of my friends from Jefferson (one of them is from Pennsylvania, and is marrying Ali's sister, who is a Jeff '08 grad). I'm not sure medicine is in the cards anymore for me, however.Q: What was medical school like?
A: Med school was hard but interesting. The small group of friends that I made was the highlight. They are bright and committed, and I'm looking forward to witnessing the good things they will do in their profession.Q: How long were you in medical school and why did you decide to leave?
A: I completed my first year and about two weeks of my second year, which is when I officially signed up for the Marine Corps.
I talked a lot with Health Professions Scholarship Programs personnel in the Army and Navy, but it wasn't the right fit. Ali and I had talked about the Marine Corps for years, and it finally shifted from being a question of "When am I going to sign up?" to "Am I really not going to sign up?"
A lot of people ask me why I became a Marine, and I can comfortably say that it was the right decision. Leading infantry Marines in a combat zone has been, and will most likely always be, the greatest honor and privilege of my life.Q: What attracted you to the Marines?
A: Initially, it was their commitment to being the best and to going to places that our country sees fit to send them. I have had a lot of opportunities in my life, and I felt that if other young men were giving their time, then why was the same not expected of me?
I felt, and still feel, strongly about our mission in Iraq. But most of all, I wanted to lead Marines, who have proven to me that they are the finest young men this country has to offer.Q: How much influence did John Stevens have on you?
A: John had a good deal of influence on me, to say the least. He is a principled and smart man and coach, capable of following through on his convictions.
I think this has helped and will continue to help him as head coach of a major team in Philadelphia, which of course can be a treacherous place for sports figures, given the media and fans (who are among the best in the world, but who can also be overwhelming). He always said Philly fans were the best in the world and would stick by you if you gave all you had. I think he was right.
He wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I signed up for the Marines, as did Jimmy McCrossin. When I told him about it, he was caught off-guard, but nonetheless he and Jimmy pledged their unconditional support to me. I haven't forgotten that, and I think it speaks highly to the quality of their character as well.
Q: Are there any former Phantoms teammates or Phantoms associates that you are in contact with?
A: I stay in touch most with Antero [Niittymaki]. He is one of my best friends. He and Miina [his wife] are incredible people and, as far as I'm concerned, are role models as parents. Antero and I were roommates our first year with the Phantoms. They also have been incredibly supportive through all of this.
Antero spent six months in the Finnish army. I used to question him about that all the time. He jokes about it now and how he should have seen my decision to join the Marines coming. We have a lot of great memories.
I also stay in touch with Coach Stevens; Jimmy McCrossin; Mark Murphy; Neil Little; Jack Baker, who is out in L.A. near Camp Pendleton; and Derek Settlemyre - all excellent guys. [Murphy, Little and Baker are former Phantoms, while Settlemyre is the Flyers' equipment manager after having served in that capacity with the Phantoms.]Q: Did you know that Jimmy McCrossin wears a dog tag with your name on it?
A: I'm honored, however, Jimmy always respected the uniformed services, not just through talk but through actions, i.e., fund-raisers, joint training, support organizations.
Without getting too sentimental, I hope that when the players see my name, they think immediately of my Marines, who are simply amazing young men. They are professionals, operating every day without a break, and do it with honor and courage. Any praise I receive should be deflected directly at them.
Q: I realize you can't be real specific, but can you give me a basic idea of what you do and what your day is like?
A: I command a rifle platoon of Marines (including two Navy corpsmen, who are Marines to me) and some additional support personnel. We conduct mounted (in trucks) and dismounted (on foot) patrols, primarily to bolster the Iraqi security forces, namely the Iraqi police.
We're also here for general security in the area and to help Iraqis and other parties assess and address the community's infrastructure, i.e., water facilities, trash conditions, availability of electricity, etc. Our role is decreasing as the capabilities of the Iraqis improve, and this is happening on a daily basis.
For example, we helped the Iraqi police in our area plan for the Anbar provincial elections at the end of January, which occurred without any violence primarily due to the diligence and capabilities of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. It's exciting to watch the progress I used to read about in papers actually occurring on the ground.Q: What do you plan to do with your life when you return home?
A: I will have at least one more deployment after this one, and whether I stay in the Marine Corps after that will depend on a number of factors.
|Stafford remains in contact with several of his former teammates, including goaltender Antero Niittymaki. |
However, I'm not sure there is a better group of people to surround oneself with than Marines, and that is something that is going to be tough to let go of if I do decide to serve my four years and then become a civilian again.
That said, I have always thought that hockey players tend to be good people, probably due to values instilled in them by growing up playing a game that required them to rely heavily on others for their success and well-being. I think there is a sense of humility that is fostered by this, even among the most elite players, but I can't prove the link.Q: Anything else you feel is important to add?
A: Just that my wife, Ali, is an amazing woman and that she, along with the wives and families of my Marines (and of servicemen and women in general), deserves as much credit as I do when people speak highly of sacrifice and duty.
I'm doing what I feel is the right thing to do, not just the good thing. Having her support in that has given me tremendous strength. The same goes for my parents, who have been impressively understanding and supportive, and I know that other Marines feel similarly about their families.
Also, I'm incredibly grateful to have spent time and played hockey in Philadelphia, and also for the friends Ali and I made while there. This goes especially for the Phantoms/Flyers organization.
It was great to read about the Phillies and of how happy Lou, our neighbor on South 10th Street, and our other friends in town must have been when they won. What a great town. We miss it.