If there's a dictionary entry for "An Officer and a Gentleman", it should simply bear a photo of Ben Stafford as its definition. He's one of the most genuinely nice people I've ever been fortunate enough to meet. I'm proud of what he's doing, but at the same time I'm scared to death that the world will lose a fine human being far too soon.
Be well and safe, Ben, and come home safely and soon! Countless thoughts and prayers are headed your way from Philly! And Trenton, and Yale, and Thomas Jefferson University, and anywhere else where people know you and are aware that you're headed overseas.
Stafford ships out
NEW YORK — This marks the second time the Flyers have visited the United States Military Academy at West Point while America is at war, but Sunday the seriousness of our nation's situation was brought to light in a personal way.
In an eerie coincidence, this was the same day that Ben Stafford, a former Flyer prospect who played 244 games for the Phantoms and is now an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, was deployed for service in Iraq.
Stafford, a Yale University graduate, gave up hockey in 2005 just after the Phantoms won the Calder Cup. A number of Stafford's teammates from that championship club are now on the Flyers.
He entered medical school but shortly after decided to enter the armed forces, much the way the late NFL Arizona Cardinal player Pat Tillman did. Tillman gave his life for his country when he was killed in combat in Afghanistan.
It's a similar bold, courageous move by the 29-year-old Stafford, one which draws both admiration and concern from his friends in Philadelphia.
Coach John Stevens and several of the players were able to talk to Stafford by phone on Friday, although the conversation was limited because the Edina, Minn., native couldn't divulge his whereabouts due to security concerns.
“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,” said Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki, one of the stars of that '05 Phantoms championship club. “We talked about it a lot, but it's what he wants to do. It's his thing. He likes it.”
Stafford went into this venture with his eyes wide open, and his hockey-playing chums respect that.
“I am a little worried,” Niittymaki admitted. “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.”
Riley Cote plays the role of tough guy in hockey, but he knows that in real life Stafford is as tough as they come.
“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.”
Stevens always got an honest effort from Stafford while the two were on the Phantoms. The coach says Stafford has the right qualities for an officer.
“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.
“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.”
While some people were caught off guard by Stafford's decision, Stevens was prepared.
“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,” the coach explained.
“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.”Wayne Fish can be reached at wfish@phillyBurbs.com. Read Fish's blog at blogs.phillyBurbs.com/wayne-fish.
October 6, 2008 7:05 AM