For Ben Stafford, it was the kind of hockey moment that young players dream about: scoring the game-winning goal in Game 4 of the 2005 Calder Cup Final, which clinched the championship for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms. But even at the height of his hockey career, Stafford knew his dream was over.
The 27-year-old celebrated with teammates who would go on to significant careers at the next level, having played center behind future NHL stars Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Patrick Sharp in that postseason. Stafford would take a different path, one that diverged sharply from the road he had journeyed from childhood games on Minnesota’s frozen lakes to pro hockey. Within the next few years, Stafford would enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, ship out to Iraq and never return to his hockey career.
“Growing up in Minnesota, that’s all we did in the winter. I loved it. I still love it. I wanted to take it as far as it could go, and I’d say coming out of college, undrafted, I had a better professional career than I thought I was going to have,” said Stafford, who played in the AHL from 2001 to ’05, with a pit stop with the ECHL’s Trenton Titans. “I didn’t expect it to be a career — like, a long-term, life career. Sometimes I wish I’d played another couple of years. But looking back, I think it was the right move to make the transition away from hockey into medicine and eventually into the military.”