By Elizabeth Casey | Photo Contributions by Ross Dettman
There are a handful of figures within the Chicago Wolves organization who were present on October 14, 1994, when a sellout crowd of 16,623 watched the fledging organization defeat the Detroit Vipers, 4-2, in the franchise’s first home game at the former Rosemont Horizon.
Owners Don Levin and Buddy Meyers were there, as were Senior Advisor/Director of Hockey Operations Gene Ubriaco (then head coach) and General Manager Wendell Young (then goaltender). Senior Executive Vice President Wayne Messmer was there, along with Head Equipment Manager Craig Kogut, Hockey Operations Advisor Mike Nardella and Assistant General Manager Bill Bentley.
Tim Stapleton was there, too. The then 12-year-old seventh grader from nearby Forest Park was in the stands with his youth hockey team, without even an inkling that one day, 15 years down the road, it would be him on the ice playing for his hometown team.
“I don’t really remember much, but I know for sure we were there,” the right wing, now 27, recalled. “I never thought I’d end up playing here, though. Even when I was playing last year with the (Toronto) Marlies, I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to play with the Wolves. I definitely couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Stapleton actually didn’t see himself going into professional hockey at all. He played for Fenwick High School his freshman and sophomore years and intended to continue there until he hung up his skates, but a twist of fate changed his mind.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” he chuckled. “I wasn’t really going to pursue hockey. There was this junior hockey team called the Chicago Chill and the coach was named Larry Pedrie. He asked my best friend to play on his team and my best friend convinced me to try out. I wasn’t going to do it, and then I went to the try out and they ended up taking me over my best friend.”
The experience ended up being pivotal for Stapleton - not because he lost his best friend when he snagged the roster spot (Stapleton went on to be best man in his wedding) – but because it was that coach who saw something special in the high schooler, and encouraged him to keep playing.
“He ended up being really important in my career,” Stapleton said of Pedrie. “He was the first coach ever to tell me ‘you can pursue this if you really want to.’ He really believed in me.”
Bolstered by his coach’s encouragement, Stapleton went on to play hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he compiled 152 points (63G, 89A) in 162 games over a four-year career.
Undrafted after graduation, the Chicago native headed overseas for a two-year stint in the Finnish Elite League. He was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in June 2008, and spent most of last season with the American Hockey League Marlies, where he led the team in goals, assists and points, before being traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, Chicago’s National Hockey League affiliate, in the offseason.
After being out of the country for his entire professional career, the chance to play in his hometown this season has been a thrill for both Stapleton and his family.
“They come to all the games,” he said of the Stapleton clan. “My parents are busy, so they didn’t come to see me play in Toronto or in Finland. This is the first time they’ve seen me play live in person in three or four years. I think my sister is my biggest fan right now; she like has a heart attack during the games. It’s pretty funny,” Stapleton laughed.
His sister, Christabel Daley, agrees she is a big fan of her little brother. She and her husband traveled to Finland and Toronto to watch him play, but his new proximity to their Aurora home has made her a regular fixture at his games.
“It’s been awesome, we haven’t been able to see him play like this since he was a little boy,” she said after a recent game, as her kids held up a homemade “We Love Uncle Tim Stapleton,” poster. “We have been to almost every game that my kids haven’t have school the next day. It has been so much fun.”
Stapleton has been having fun as well, relishing everything about his Chicago homecoming, from Portillo’s Italian Beef, to hanging out with friends from high school.
“When I was in Finland, I didn’t get a chance to come home ever. I spent Christmas there by myself,” he said. “I usually have to wait till summer to get home, so I’m taking full advantage of being here. It’s pretty nice.”
One less obvious advantage of being in his hometown came to his attention early this season, when things weren’t so fun. The team went through a difficult stretch, losing five of the first six games and its coaching staff as a result.
“That was the first time I’ve been through something like that,” he said. “It definitely helped that I’m home. When you’re losing a lot of games, it’s tough to be positive and it’s tough to do things to improve because you just get that negative attitude. That’s where hanging out with my family or my friends that don’t play, and just being able to get away and not think about everything, played a role.”
Stapleton thinks the worst is over, and has been scoring the goals to prove it. At press time, he ranked among AHL leaders and first on the Wolves in goals scored.
“It’s a long season and there are still a lot of games left, but something must be right now, because it’s fun again,” he said. “We just have to keep working hard. We have the team to go all the way if we really want to. We just need to keep improving.”
Stapleton knows he and his teammates will get the support they need to do that and credits those who also were present at the game he and his seventh-grade teammates watched in 1994.
“We’re basically a major league team, the way we get treated. It’s first class all the way here, from the owners on down,” he said. “I’m proud to be playing for them.”