- Carolina Hurricanes winger Lee Stempniak is one of the few NHL players to play for at least 10 NHL teams. The road is long, but he remains in demand.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are several different, albeit equally striking, methods of plopping Lee Stempaniak’s nomadic career into perspective. Feel free to choose your favorite bit of trivia.
For starters, the well-traveled winger has played for one-third of today's National Hockey League and half of the Original Six, all before turning 34 years old earlier this month. He has been traded six times, including at the deadline in each of the past three seasons. He has dressed with teams in all four current divisions, spanning all four time zones in the continental United States, depending on whether Arizona aligns with daylight savings at that particular moment. In some of those cities, Stempniak rents apartments. In others, he crashes at extended-stay hotels. The only place he actually bucked up and bought property was St. Louis, his first stop from '05–06 to '08–09. Then, within a year of closing on the house, he got dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “The kiss of death,” he says. Lesson learned.
Last summer, as Stempniak scribbled his name onto two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 1 and officially joined his 10th club, he gained access into a private guild of hockey gadabouts. At the time, only six others could claim to have dressed for double-digit franchises: Michel Petit, J.J. Daigenault, Jim Dowd, Mathieu Schneider, Olli Jokinen, and Mike "Suitcase" Sillinger, the all-time leader with a dozen destinations, two more than any of the others. An eighth soon joined the ranks when Boston signed veteran center Dominic Moore in late August; through the Bruins' media relations staff, Moore declined an interview request for this story. “He’d prefer to stay focused on this team and this season,” a spokesman wrote in an email.
Which is understandable. Diving down the memory tubes can become a dizzying exercise. Stempniak, for instance, didn’t realize where his precise tally stood until reporters started asking heading into last season’s trade deadline, when he was stuck at eight but staring at nine. (New Jersey eventually flipped him, coincidentally enough, to Boston). “Played for a lot of different coaches, learned a lot of different stuff, seen a lot of different things,” he says.
It all finally hit Schneider in 2015, when the defenseman was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame and saw his credentials listed out. “I guess when you’re dreaming of being an NHL player, you always dream of playing a long time,” he says, “but you never dream of playing on 10 different clubs. There’s no question about that.” Sillinger remembered crossing paths with Stempniak in St. Louis, during the latter’s rookie season and the former’s 10th stop. He also initially swore they had skated together in one other place, before realizing they had not.
“When guys try to rattle off my career, I have to think about it,” Sillinger says. “I sit there and go, ‘Oh yeah, I got drafted here, then traded here, went to here, to here … no, geez, I went to here.”
At first, change can land like a blindside check. A fifth-rounder in the ’03 draft, Stempniak was 14 games into his fourth season with the Blues when they traded him to Toronto. Three hours after learning the news, the upstate New York native—who played juniors in Buffalo and graduated from Dartmouth College—was on a plane headed across the border. “It was a huge shock to me,” he says. “I’m a pretty quiet person by nature. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so I was just wading into it. I think my play on the ice maybe lagged me behind as a result.”
Indeed, go-with-the-flow personalities are often required to survive—let alone thrive—amid so much upheaval. “When you start feeling sorry for yourself, like aw geez, this sucks, that sucks, you know what happens?" Sillinger says. “Someone there is going to take your job.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Stempniak says. “Some guys go somewhere, they go somewhere else, and if it doesn’t work out they flush out of the league. I feel like I’m pretty adaptable and I take pride of that.”
Sometimes this involves little more than a simple attitude check, an embracing what the business of hockey has wrought. “You move on,” Sillinger says. “Hey, I’m just going to my new office.” But like the new staff hire buying rounds at happy hour, making the extra effort sure helps, too. Stempniak, for instance, began hosting dinners for several younger Hurricanes this season, including around the holidays. He recalls feeling lonely on his first Christmas in the NHL, and felt no desire to pass along the same experience.
“I work the grill and my wife does everything else,” he says. “Chicken tenderloin, steak, pork … We’ve done it a couple times. Not nearly as often as I should.”
Of course, not all movement is created equal. Stempniak has enjoyed little control over his various stops, rented more times than an Enterprise sports car. Schneider, on the other hand, benefited from the good graces of two general managers who traded him by request—the Islanders’ Mike Milbury to Toronto at the ’95–96 deadline, and Atlanta’s Don Waddell in Feb. 2009.
“We were essentially out of the playoffs around Christmas time and he called me and said, ‘Listen, if you want to stay and finish the year out here, you’re more than welcome, but if you want to get traded, give me a list of teams, I’ll see if I can make it happen,’” Schneider says of Waddell. “I gave him a list of five teams. Montreal was number one on that list. And a week later I was playing for the Canadiens again.”
Among the aforementioned eight, half have returned to old teams for second stints—Dowd with New Jersey, Jokinen with Calgary, Moore with the Rangers, and Schneider, who started at the Montreal Forum and rejoined after the Habs moved to Bell Centre. This remains a fond memory for Schneider, now the NHLPA’s special assistant to the executive director. “I felt like I was going back to hockey country,” he says. “Guys used to say it my first few years, once you get traded once, you’re more likely to get traded again. I think there’s some truth to that.”
Every member of the Double-Digit-Club Club will agree, though: The hardest times happen when family and hockey collide. Granted, it probably hasn’t helped that Sillinger, Schneider and Stempniak are all prodigious procreators, with three, four, and three children, respectively. When Stempniak was traded to the Penguins, his twin daughters were less than one week old, born premature during the 2014 Winter Olympic break. He saw them for “three or four days total” until the season ended, and then not at all over a two-month stretch after Winnipeg shipped him to the Rangers the following year. “That stuff’s hard,” he says. “A lot of credit goes to my wife for keeping the house together and under control.”
At least souvenirs are never in short supply. Today, Sillinger’s dozen NHL uniforms can be found somewhere around the family home. Many hang in the hallways or the basement, but one each was framed inside the bedrooms of his sons, corresponding to the team for which Sillinger played at their birth—Vancouver for 19-year-old Owen, Florida for 16-year-old Lukas, Columbus for 13-year-old Cole. “My boys chirp me about them,” Sillinger says. “They joke about all the teams I’ve played on, they joke about not being able to win a Stanley Cup. Then I have to throw in their face that I played 18 years and over 1,000 games.”
Ultimately, however, longevity serves as the hat rack inside the clubhouse. In other words, you don't play for 10 teams without 10 teams wanting you. Dowd logged the fewest NHL appearances among them, and even he reached 728 over 17 years. Sillinger, Schneider and Jokinen all eclipsed 500 career points; with 44 through Tuesday, including 27 in 56 games this season, Stempniak could well join them in the near future. “He’s in good shape,” Sillinger says of Stempniak. “He’s healthy. He might break my record.”
Perhaps Stempniak will find his way onto two more clubs—the trade deadline after all, is exactly one week away -- but for now he’s relishing this unusual stability in Carolina. The contract, annually worth $2.5 million, was his first multi-year deal since 2012. He’s formed chemistry with young Finn forwards Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, while getting the occasional top-line start opposite Carolina’s leading goal-scorer, Jeff Skinner. A few more steaks should sizzle on the grill before the regular season ends, too.
“You hate to complain too much,” he says. “There are people in the military who are away from their families for years at a time. I’ve lived in places I never would’ve dreamed of. I think I’d flown maybe four times in my life before I got to the NHL, and now I’ve lived everywhere. My wife’s made great friends in a lot of different places. It’s been just part of the experience.
“I like it here in Carolina. It’s a good fit, a young team where I feel I can play a role and contribute and grow with the team, because I think we’re going to be very good pretty shortly. I’d like to be a part of that.
“Hope it lasts.”