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Stafford remains an active-duty Marine

by Adam Kimelman /
Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens was involved in two Calder Cup championships with the Philadelphia Phantoms, one as a player and one as a coach.

In his office hangs one photo from the 2005 team, which he guided to the American Hockey League championship. He could have others, but the one he has in a prominent spot near his desk is the one that means the most to him. It's Ben Stafford, drenched in sweat, already wearing his championship cap, fresh off scoring the Cup-clinching goal that finished a sweep of the Chicago Wolves in the final.

Stafford is still sweating today, but his work has moved from the ice to the battlefield. After four seasons of professional hockey, Stafford today is a U.S. Marine, helping in the war on terrorism.

"A lot of people ask me why I became a Marine, and I can comfortably say that it was the right decision," Stafford told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an April interview. "Leading infantry Marines in a combat zone has been, and will most likely always be, the greatest honor and privilege of my life."

Stafford spent part of his first deployment in Iraq, where he commanded a rifle platoon of Marines. They conducted patrols and helped support Iraqi police and military.

"He said the toughest thing over there was getting accustomed to dealing with the people and respecting their customs," Flyers trainer Jim McCrossin told "'Staff' was the picture of health, never drank, never smoke, and here he is (in pictures) with a glass of tea and a cigarette in his hand, with an M-16 and his bayonet. He said, 'Jimmy you know I don't smoke, but when you go into a village and you sit down with the leaders in the village, they offer you some tea and a cigarette. It's insulting to them if you don't drink the tea and smoke the cigarette.' He said you do what you need to do to make friends."

Making friends is something Stafford never struggled with in hockey.

"Ben's one of those guys you have on your team you take for granted," Stevens, who coached Stafford for four seasons with the Phantoms, told "I used to call him the Golden Citizen."

Instead of the Golden Citizen -- or "Ducky," his nickname from his turn as an uncredited skater in the first Mighty Ducks movie -- friends now can address him by his military rank.

After graduating Yale University in 2001, Stafford played pro hockey for four seasons, starting with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL, and earned brief AHL runs with the Phantoms, Saint John Flames and Providence Bruins. He spent the next three seasons with the Phantoms.

"He could play on your fourth line or your first line," said Stevens. "He could play five minutes or 15 minutes and he was your best five-minute player or your best 15-minute player. He was willing to do whatever he could do to help the team."

After the championship season, Stafford married his girlfriend, Ali, and decided to put his Ivy League education to use, retiring to enroll at Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

"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," Stafford told the Inquirer. "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."

While he threw himself into a career in medicine, something else was tugging at him. The atrocities of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 had Stafford thinking then of ending his hockey and enlisting in the military. In January 2002, however, he met Ali, and his military career went on the back-burner.

That pull never stopped, and just weeks into his second year of medical school, he made plans to start a third career.

"It was something he'd been thinking about for a long time, even when he was playing hockey," Ali Stafford told "Then he got into medical school, but even when he was in medical school he felt he still really wanted to do this."

"This" was drop out of Jefferson and join the United State Marine Corps. It could have been a stunning blow to a new bride, but Ali says she never discouraged her husband.

"For all the time I've known him ... he's considered doing this," she said. "I want him to be happy, I want him to do what he feels strongly about."

Stafford could have stayed state-side, completed medical school and help the war effort by working some place like Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. That wasn't really an option, however.

"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."
-- Ben Stafford

"He wants to do something more," Ali said simply.

While telling his wife went fairly easily, it was the other people in his life -- family and friends -- that needed more convincing. Telling his parents back home in Edina, Minn., made for what Ali called, "a weird time."

Derek Settlemyre, the Flyers' head equipment manager who had served a similar role with the Phantoms, was stunned at his friend's revelation.

"I was in disbelief," he told "It was a game day. We were meeting up later to go to a show and he called and said I wanted to tell you this."

Settlemyre's first inclination was to try to change his friend's mind, but he saw quickly it would be a futile attempt.

"He feels strongly about it. Anything you say he comes back with an answer. That's what he believes. ... Any point I had, he countered."

Another friend who learned early was former teammate Antero Niittymaki. Niittymaki had served a compulsory stint in the Finnish military before coming to North America to play with Stafford with the Phantoms. Niittymaki, now with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said Stafford would often pepper him with military-related questions.

"He always asked me lots of questions and he always read books about Army stuff," Niittymaki told "He always liked that stuff. It's a big change from playing hockey and going to medical school, that's one thing. To drop that and go to the (Marines) ... that's what he likes to do, so that’s what he should go do."

When they talk now, they often talk about hockey. But Niittymaki said he's never gotten the feeling that Stafford, who left the game at age 24, has any regrets about leaving the game so soon.

"He doesn't regret it at all," said Niittymaki. "I'm sure he missed the ice and the locker room, but I don't think he regrets it at all. I'm sure he had it all planned."

That plan that Stafford has so whole-heartedly embraced takes him down a tougher path than 99.9-percent of us ever will have to travel.

"He's got real strong beliefs as a citizen of this country, and he feels it's part of his duty to serve this country," said Stevens. "He was a History major (at Yale), he's a well-educated guy. He feels this obligation to serve his country. I certainly think you have to respect him for that. I think that's what made him such a team guy. I think it's somewhat ironic that he scored the winning goal in our championship game but he's just that guy that always has a good reason for what he does. He was a firm member of our team, he's a firm citizen. After talking to him, you had a real appreciation for what he wanted to do."

"I pay attention to what's going on (in the news)," said Ali, "talk about it with Ben, how things are going. It doesn't make a difference, really, in Ben's decision either way."

Ali isn't the only one watching. McCrossin stays in touch with Stafford, sends him care packages and had dog tags made with Stafford's name on them so he and other former teammates of Stafford's can wear them. McCrossin said the last time he spoke to Stafford was August, and isn't sure what was next. Niittymaki thought he could end up as a Marine instructor, but wasn't sure where. Both are hoping to see Stafford -- currently stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California -- when their teams head west.

McCrossin said he and Stafford don't go into too much detail about where Stafford has gone or what he's done, but McCrossin said Stafford constantly is in his thoughts.

"He said he was in Iraq for a while, then he said he couldn't tell me where he was so I didn't ask," McCrossin said. "I just know one time he said, 'Jimmy I'm hunting the bad guys.'"

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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