View Full Version : Flyers bond at West Point

10-06-08, 08:53 AM
Posted on Mon, Oct. 6, 2008
Flyers bond at West Point

By Sam Carchidi

Inquirer Staff Writer

WEST POINT, N.Y. - The Flyers, preparing for their season opener Saturday against the New York Rangers, started a three-day bonding camp at the U.S. Military Academy yesterday.

Three days of getting away and getting to know one another in a different setting. Three days of drills designed to get the team to act as a unit instead of individuals.

The opportunity to mingle with the cadets gave a different perspective on life. "We all know what's going on with the war, and you have a chance to meet some great people," Simon Gagne said.

In addition to two practices at Army's rink, the Flyers will be doing team-building exercises. Yesterday, they listened to Nate Zinsser, a sports psychologist from West Point.

"We talked through some things about our team [with Zinsser], and went outside and put it to the test with some challenges and interactive activities," coach John Stevens said.

Over the years, the Flyers have had similar bonding trips. They were at West Point in 2005 and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 2006. Last year, they had a team-building trip in Whistler, British Columbia.

Veteran right winger Mike Knuble said the trip to West Point three years ago remains etched in his mind. "The captain [of Army's hockey team] was killed in Afghanistan two weeks prior to us getting there," Knuble recalled. "That sticks out the most."

The Flyers learned recently that Ben Stafford, 29, a former member of their AHL farm team, the Phantoms, was being deployed to Iraq. Stafford, who attended Yale, retired from the Phantoms after the 2005 season and went to medical school in Philadelphia before joining the Marines.

"I talked to Ben a few days ago. He still has a lot of close friends here and keeps in touch with them," Stevens said. Stafford scored the decisive goal in the 2005 game when the Phantoms won the Calder Cup. Flyers captain Mike Richards was a teammate of Stafford's during the AHL playoffs that season.

"He was a good hockey player and a great guy," said Richards, whose team will play the Phantoms at the Spectrum tomorrow. "It's amazing what he's gone through."

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.


10-06-08, 09:10 AM
Ex-Flyers forward, Marine, Ben Stafford deployed to Iraq

,WEST POINT, N.Y. — Ironically, on a day when the Flyers were being instructed by the military on the importance of the team-first mentality, one of their former mates was being deployed to Iraq.

Ben Stafford, the former organizational forward who scored the game-winning goal in the Calder Cup-clinching victory by the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005, was sent to the Middle East Sunday as the leader of a Marine battalion (1st Lieutenant) in an effort to continue to help stabilize the war-torn country.

Stafford, 29, spent parts of four years in the Flyers organization — one with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL and three with the Phantoms, choosing to retire following the Calder Cup victory to get married and go to medical school.

A graduate of Yale University with a degree in history, Stafford had enough pre-med credits to enroll at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

However, just before completing hi schooling, he felt the need and desire to fight for the United States in the Middle East.

He dropped out of medical school and immediately applied for enlistment into officer's training with the Marine Corps.

"Everyone's initial reaction was a little surprised especially because he went into medical school and had a long process to get in there," Flyers' coach John 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."

Despite several friends in the world of hockey trying to convince him not to take that route, and to stay the course in the field of medicine, Stafford relented.

"I was real shaky about it at first, but now you talk to him and you hear how confident he is," said Flyers equipment manager Derek Settlemyre, who became one of Stafford's closest friends when the two were together with the Phantoms. "He tells you he's ready. He's leading a battalion and makes you feel confident too. I'm still worried, but there's no talking to him when he has his mind set on something like this. I'm even more blown away by him now after his been in there for a year or so. I know the way he is. He'll be fine, but I'm still worried — anything can happen."

Anything — like the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire after a communication breakdown.

Like Tillman, Stafford didn't need to go to war. Joining the Marines wasn't a requirement. It wasn't an escape. No, like Tillman he just happened to be a gung ho patriot and wanted to do what he believed to be right and just, no matter how promising his future might have been otherwise.

"Ben is a total low maintenance guy who did everything right for our hockey team," said Stevens, who coached Stafford while with the Phantoms. When he gets his mind set on a mission or a goal he jumps with both feet in. He had a real passion to join the Marine Corps and he's doing what he wants to do. We support him and wish him all the best and we're thankful for what he's doing."

Stafford still has a lot of close friends within the Flyers' organization. Aside form Stevens and Settlemyre, Stafford remains close with trainer Jim McCrossin, forward Riley Cote and defenseman Randy Jones.

But there is no one on the Flyers closer to Stafford than goalie Antero Niittymaki, who was Stafford's best friend in hockey.

"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 its tough," Niittymaki said. "We talked about it a lot, but it's what he wants to do. It's his thing. He likes it. I am a little worried. 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."

Niittymaki said his goodbyes to Stafford on the phone Friday — Stafford now lives with his wife Ally, whom he met in Philadelphia, in southern California — and said he wasn't certain when he would be able to talk to his friend again.

"He said he can't call or talk while he's there," Niittymaki said. "He said he wasn't sure if he'd be able to do e-mail, but he said he'll write me a letter, and I'll write him back, but the best thing will be to call Ally every once in a while to se how he is, because she'll be the only one who really knows."

There is definitely a nervous vibe that is almost tangible amongst his friends on the Flyers. It is quite apparent that they aren't comfortable with Stafford's chosen path, and are hoping, wishing, praying that their friend returns stateside next May safely — maybe in time to see the Flyers competing for a Stanley Cup.

But, that will be incumbent upon the Flyers taking an example from their patriotic friend, and focusing on the team first and the individual second.

"It's ironic that's what we were talking about (Sunday) at West Point, 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."