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Army visit has more meaning to Flyers

by Adam Kimelman
The Philadelphia Flyers have made it almost a yearly tradition to visit the United States Military Academy at West Point prior to the start of the regular season. They go through team-building exercises, military-style workouts and spend time with cadets and soldiers.

This year's trip, however, had a bit of a different feel.

While the current players toured the grounds in West Point, a former teammate of many was taking his own military journey.

Ben Stafford, who spent four seasons with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, deployed for Iraq Saturday as a member of the United States Marine Corps. Stafford was part of the Phantoms' 2005 Calder Cup championship team, which included a number of current Flyers, including Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Antero Niittymaki and coach John Stevens, who coached that Phantoms team.

"I am a little worried," Niittymaki, one of Stafford's closest friends, told the Bucks County Courier Times. "You don't know what's going on over there or what's happening. But you have to deal with it and hope everything goes well. You don't want to see anybody going to Iraq because it's a pretty dangerous place, but when it's a friend of yours, it's tough. We talked about it a lot, but it's what he wants to do. It's his thing. He likes it."

Stevens was one of several members of the organization to speak with Stafford, 29, who has been stationed in Southern California since finishing basic training.

"It puts things into perspective," Stevens said. "Ben is a total low-maintenance guy who did everything right for our hockey team. When he gets his mind set on a mission or a goal, he jumps with both feet in."

Stafford, a Yale graduate, quit hockey after the Calder Cup win to attend Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Stafford, though, was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and joined the Marines to do his part in defending his country.

"Everyone's initial reaction was a little surprised especially because he went into medical school and (it) had (been) a long process to get in there," Stevens said. "But I was one of his references to become an officer in the Marine Corps. After he explained his reasons for wanting to do it -- he was a history major at Yale, he has strong beliefs in serving his country and he has such good team values -- I knew he'd be great at whatever he does. You understand why he wants to do it and where he's coming from."

Riley Cote, another member of the 2005 Phantoms title team, played the same tough-guy role for that Phantoms team that he does for the current Flyers. Cote, though, is smart enough to know who the real tough guy is.

"It's ironic that's what we were talking about (Sunday) at West Point (with a sports psychologist), comparing sports to war," Cote said. "They were telling us that being on a team and athletics prepares you for battle and that there are a lot of similarities -- the discipline, the communication, the teamwork and all that.

"I know Stafford has that mentality. He does everything the best way possible. He was one of the most in-shape guys we've ever had in camp, and he's a fierce competitor. That's the mentality he has to have going where he's going. I have the ultimate respect for him as a person for doing that."

Parting is such sweet sorrow -- Tempering the joy of the new season is the grim realization that teams can only carry 24 players on their opening night roster. That means the NHL hopes for some were dashed.

For the five teams in the Atlantic Division, it hit hard for young and old.

In Philadelphia, defenseman Bryan Berard and center Jim Dowd were released from their tryout contracts. Dowd, 39, had 5 goals and 10 points in 73 games for the Flyers as a fourth-line center after making the team in training camp last season. Berard, 31, was hoping to find an NHL job after an injury-plagued season with the New York Islanders.

"The reason we wanted them in camp is because they are high quality people and very competitive people," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren told reporters. "Jimmy did a great job for us last year, but it just comes down to numbers sometimes. I'm thankful they came into camp, and I thought they added some spark to our camp. Both of them."

For the Devils, top defense prospect Matthew Corrente and center Nicklas Bergfors, the club's 2005 first-round pick were sent to the club's AHL affiliate, the Lowell Devils.

The cruelest cuts may have been made by the Rangers and Penguins. Missing out on the joy of opening the season as part of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 games were Rangers defensemen Brian Fahey and Corey Potter and Penguins forward Janne Pesonen. The three had to watch, knowing their next stops were the minor leagues.

"It was a tough decision," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien told reporters. "The kid had a good camp. He's close. … We like his skill. He's good around the net. Like I said, we like him, but he has some things to work on."

Regardless of the team, the players left behind can take solace in Therrien's words. While they were directed toward Pesonen, they hope to hear it from their coach or GM.

"We'll see him back in Pittsburgh," Therrien said.

"We've got a good mix of young guys and veterans here, and we're all confident in ourselves and each other."
-- Kyle Okposo

Young and old -- New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow pledged to put a younger team on the ice in 2008-09. But his biggest summer acquisition was 37-year-old center Doug Weight.

Weight is another 30-something on the roster, joining captain Bill Guerin, checking center Mike Sillinger and defenseman Brendan Witt. But there's also a contingent of 25-and-under players who will see loads of ice time, including forwards Sean Bergenheim, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen, Jeff Tambellini and Kyle Okposo, the club's 20-year-old jewel.

And they'll be playing for a first-time NHL coach in Scott Gordon, last season's AHL Coach of the Year.

While many experts have the Isles pegged for the bottom of the standings, the players see something completely different.

"I've heard all the people who are writing us off, saying we don't have enough talent," Okposo said. "I was on a team (the University of Minnesota) that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, and I've been on teams that no one thought would win much. None of it matters. We've got a good mix of young guys and veterans here, and we're all confident in ourselves and each other."

"I really believe we have a chance. We're developing something here."

Be still, racing heart -- If he isn't the best player in the League, he's certainly the most important to his team's effort. So Devils fans can be forgiven for fearing the worst when goalie Martin Brodeur stormed off the ice early in Monday's practice.

According to The (Bergen) Record, Brodeur angrily threw his catching glove to the ice and skated into the locker room during drills.

Moments later, though, Brodeur returned. It was just a skate issue. Brodeur was breaking in a new pair and his feet went numb, so he changed into an old pair.

Contact Adam Kimelman at

Author: Adam Kimelman | Staff Writer

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