In early October 2003, former University of New Hampshire defenseman Garrett Stafford’s future looked uncertain. He had been to two NHL camps, Los Angeles and Dallas, and had been released by both. The free agent defenseman got a shot from San Jose’s AHL affiliate Cleveland Barons on October 10 with a professional tryout contract. By the end of that season Stafford had been named the January AHL Rookie of the Month, to PlanetUSA in the AHL All-Star Game, AHL Second-Team All-Star, and an AHL All-Rookie Team member, thanks to scoring 12 goals and adding 34 assists in 73 games.
His rookie season ended in infamy though. One of the top offensive defensemen in the Hockey East with UNH, Stafford suddenly became famous for an incident in the second round of the AHL Playoffs with the Hamilton Bulldogs Alexander Perezhogin, in which Stafford swung at Perezhogin from the ice and the Russian prospect swung and connected with Stafford’s face, causing him to lose four teeth and giving him a concussion. He missed the first six games of the 2004-05 season due to an AHL suspension from the incident, but Perezhogin was suspended from the AHL for the entire season. Stafford’s ice time wasn’t as copious in 2004-05 with Christian Ehrhoff and Jim Fahey on the team full-time during the NHL lockout, limiting Stafford to a still respectable 6 goals and 18 assists in 68 games.
s-serif”>After a strong training camp with San Jose, although losing the numbers game, Stafford appears to be back, strong as ever. Despite a slow start to the season statistically, Stafford has teamed with Matt Carkner to anchor the Barons blue line. The Los Angeles native scored 4 goals and 6 assists in a busy 16-game December and already has 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games to start January.
Hockey’s Future caught up to Stafford after a 3-0 loss to the Iowa Stars January 10, a homecoming of sorts for the defenseman, as he played three seasons with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL from 1996-97 season to the 1997-98 season, winning two Anderson Cups (USHL regular season champion), a Clark Cup (USHL Playoff champion) and a Gold Cup (USA Junior A Championship) in the process. The game was also Cleveland’s first since it was officially announced January 9 that San Jose would be moving its AHL affiliate to Worcester, Mass., next season.
HF: Since you’re an AHL veteran with Cleveland, tell me your reaction to the news that Cleveland will be moving to Worcester next year.
GS: No comment.
HF: Tell me about your season so far.
GS: It started out slow for me, offensively, that’s kind of my game. As of late I’ve been really getting it going. Tonight was a little bump in the road, but hopefully we can get back going Friday night with that.
HF: Tell me about the level of play last year in the AHL with the NHL lockout.
GS: It was definitely more solid top to bottom. Each team had at least three solid lines, if not four, so there was a lot more depth in the league. But, I don’t think there was too much drop off between last year to this year. But definitely it was very solid last year.
HF: You often paired with Doug Murray in the past, tell me about pairing with him.
GS: I think we just compliment each other well. As everyone knows he just crushes guys (laughing a bit and smiling) and I’m on the offensive side. He can do it offensively to, so we worked well together and it was always fun playing with Dougie.
HF: What do you feel are some of the specific strengths of your game?
GS: My vision, being able to move the puck and start the offense and create plays.
HF: And things you’re working on to help you stick in San Jose someday?
GS: Just being solid and consistent on defense shift in and shift out, that’s really what I’m working on right now.
HF: You passed through Los Angeles and Dallas on your way to Cleveland and San Jose, tell me about your rookie season, you seemed to prove a lot by being named Second Team All-Star, All-Rookie Team.
GS: Yeah, it was a struggle, but I think it just made me that much better in the end. LA had too many guys signed, same thing with Dallas, and then San Jose finally gave me a chance and I took advantage of it. I’m very appreciative for that opportunity.
HF: What are some of your favorite memories from your rookie pro season?
GS: My favorite memory is just playing with good players, to tell you the truth. Just being able to go up the ice and give the puck to someone and get it back on my stick. That’s just fun. When you’re playing with a bunch of good guys, that’s what hockey’s all about.
HF: You hit upon it slightly, what did you think about the difference between the AHL and Hockey East?
GS: The pro game, whether it’s the AHL or even more in the NHL, it’s just more positioning. Guys are in the right place, it’s less chaotic and a little less run and gun. I don’t mind that.
HF: You have a few NHL camps under your belt, how do you feel those have helped you?
GS: They’ve helped a lot, especially my last camp with San Jose. This year I had a really good camp, and you learn a lot, it’s fun playing with those NHL guys, they’re just that much better than the guys down here.
HF: The Wildcats achieved quite a bit while you were with the team, tell me about some of your favorite memories from UNH.
GS: Well, the thing about college is, those are your guys. It’s not a business, it’s like family. My family memories are just the players, the coaches, and winning a lot, and having a lot of fun.
HF: Tell me about your teammate Josh Prudden, what kind of player was he in college?
GS: Josh was a very consistent player, both sides of the puck. You could count on him defensively and he produced offensively too. I came in with him four years, and he was the same every year, he just got better and better. He’s kind of done, similar to me, he got a chance in the East Coast, did really well, and then got a chance in the AHL and did really well last year, so he’s sticking around.
HF: What did you learn from Dick Umile?
GS: The biggest lesson that I learned from Coach Umile is your teammates are family, and you always have to take care of them no matter what, no matter what happens. And also, whatever happens in the family stays in the family. That’s the biggest lesson I learned from Dick Umile.
HF: It wouldn’t be fair not to ask you about Des Moines, now that you’re here — tell me a bit about your days playing in the USHL.
GS: Yeah, it seems like eons ago. I had some great times in Des Moines. We won a few cups and a national championship, so I have a lot of great memories here.
HF: How was your development in Des Moines?
GS: It was definitely a huge step for me. I came when I was 16 and Scott Owens gave me a chance and, once again, I took advantage of it. My goal since I was 13 or 14 years old was to get a college scholarship, and I was able to do that through Des Moines, so it was a great experience.
HF: Where did you play before Des Moines?
GS: I played for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, Midget AAA.
HF: Ah, fierce rivals of the Jr. Kings.
GS: Yeah, I played for them too. I played for all of those teams, but Scott Owens actually saw me at the Select 15 Festival and gave me a call over the summer, and it worked out.
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