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LITTLE BIG MAN OF THE BLACK HAWKS

May 07, 1973
May 07, 1973

Table of Contents
May 7, 1973

Seventh Heaven
Little Big Man
Arms And Men
Baseball
Fishing
Design For Sport
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

LITTLE BIG MAN OF THE BLACK HAWKS

A heavy burden rests on diminutive Pat Stapleton's shoulders—a chip, too—as the Chicago defenseman skates against Montreal

As Chicago opened hostilities with Montreal this week for possession of the Stanley Cup, it was perhaps fitting that some of the Black Hawks' largest hopes lay with the smallest defense-man on the ice. What Chicago could not accomplish in the same situation in 1965 and 1971 with the bullets of Bobby Hull it was now attempting with teamwork and defense—and the breakaways that could develop through the alertness of that defense. In the Chicago scheme of things no man was more important than 5'7" Pat Stapleton, the team's unfrocked captain but a most conscientious worker.

This is an article from the May 7, 1973 issue Original Layout

Indeed, whenever Stapleton comes into focus it seems that he is doing the work of two men, on the ice and off. Take one stretch of 24 hours last week as an example. He was outstanding as Chicago finished off the New York Rangers to gain the finals. He also closed a $600,000 deal to build an ice-skating arena in Westlake, Ohio, promised to provide two dozen old friends with tickets for the games against the Canadiens, stole teammate Doug Jarrett's new tennis racket, debated mortgage rates with a New York financier, checked on the 165 head of cattle at his ranch outside Adelaide, Ontario, dunned some reluctant bill-payers, thanked a Catholic nun named Sister Josita for praying for the Black Hawks and agreed to lead the Naperville, Ill. Junior Olympians in a parade.

For Stapleton, those activities were just another day's work and play. The most satisfying activity, of course, was the 4-1 game and series victory over the Rangers, for New York had been favored to win. Although Stapleton was a dominant force in the game, his contribution was largely missing from the statistics. He was credited with one assist; in fact, he initiated the passing plays that led to each Chicago goal. And though officially he scored only six points in the five games with the Rangers, he was on the ice when Chicago got 12 of its 15 goals.

"Finding the puck was never any problem," mumbled Captain Vic Had-field of the Rangers. "Stapleton always had it. Trouble was, we couldn't get it away from him," Stapleton and lanky Bill White have formed hockey's best defensive pair the last three seasons, and in cup games they always play at least 40 of the 60 minutes. White contentedly anchors himself to the Chicago blue line, but the irascible Stapleton roves throughout center ice on search-and-destroy missions, anticipating plays and then darting in front of opposing forwards to filch the puck from them. "We completed more passes to Stapleton than to any of our own guys," mourned one confused Ranger.

Once Stapleton steals the puck he either headmans it to one of his streaking forwards or cruises to the opposition blue line and fires it at the goaltender. "Most people think I'm an offensive defenseman, but I'm not," Stapleton says. "An offensive defenseman is someone like Bobby Orr who carries the puck in deep. Me? I rarely, if ever, take the puck more than a stride or two across the blue line before getting rid of it."

"If Stapleton plays against Montreal the way he played against us," says New York Coach Emile Francis, "the Black Hawks will beat the Canadiens."

Stapleton did his part in Sunday's opener in Montreal by firing lead passes that were converted into three Chicago goals. The defensive part of the equation didn't quite work out, though. After being up 2-0 and 3-2, in the end Chicago was routed 8-3 because it could not cope with the Canadiens' speed and close-in passes. The Black Hawk goalie, Tony Esposito, was replaced in the third period by Gary Smith. "We had 'em," said Stapleton, "and we let 'em get away."

Regardless of how the Black Hawks ultimately fare against the Canadiens, there is a strong possibility that the 32-year-old Stapleton will not play for them next season. His relationship with Chicago management deteriorated after Coach Billy Reay snipped the captain's C from his jersey three years ago when he had the audacity to hold out for a better contract. Early this season Reay suddenly benched Stapleton and began to play some of his rookie defensemen alongside White. But without Stapleton in the lineup the Black Hawks were listless. Finally, Center Stan Mikita, the team's senior citizen, publicly criticized the benching of Stapleton, and almost immediately Reay restored him to his regular role.

"It's a strange thing," Stapleton says with a grin, "but the wheel always turns. There's a top and a bottom. One day you're on the bottom, the next day you're on top. My day on top will be coming soon." What Stapleton means is that the Los Angeles Sharks of the WHA have offered Stapleton more money for one season than the Black Hawks have ever paid him for three.

Ironically, Stapleton's contract hassle three years ago prompted a change in his way of life that ultimately should make him very prosperous if the WHA does not do it first. For almost 30 years Stapleton was a basic uncomplicated hockey player. Born in Sarnia, Ontario, he was the smallest kid on the block and, as a result, spent most of his early days dodging pucks as a goaltender. "I was eight years old when I told them what they could do with their goaltender's equipment," he says. After that defiance Stapleton alternated between left wing and defense, and eventually he left Sarnia at the age of 17 to play for the Chicago-sponsored junior team at St. Catharine's, Ontario. He was the runt of the team.

Stapleton turned professional with Sault Ste. Marie in 1960, and at the end of the season he was drafted by the Boston Bruins. "The Bruins had a terrible team then," he says. "I never played very well. I really began to wonder if I was too small to be in the NHL. After all, if I couldn't play for the Bruins, who could I play for?" Hoping that Stapleton would grow a few inches, Boston sent him to Portland of the Western League for two years. "I learned how to play the game out there," he says. "I had always tried to muscle people and, of course, it never worked. In Portland I learned how to finesse them, how to box them away from the goal without getting run over." In his second season with Portland, Stapleton scored 29 goals and 57 assists and was voted the league's top defenseman.

As a reward Boston recalled him, but immediately traded him to Toronto, which owned his contract for less than 24 hours before the Black Hawks reclaimed him in the player draft. Stapleton started the 1965-66 season with Chicago's farm club in St. Louis, played there for a few weeks and then was recalled by the Hawks when they were besieged by injuries. Stapleton stayed on as a regular and played so well that he was voted to the league's All-Star team. Then he was named captain of the Black Hawks, a move Bobby Hull applauded by saying, "He is our inspiration."

Stapleton was paying his price in stitches. Doctors have sewn more than 600 of them into his face. "When you're little," Stapleton says resignedly, "you get a lot of sticks in your face that other players get in their chest." Pucks, too. One night Stapleton almost lost his right eye when a Bernie Geoffrion slap shot thudded above it. In February of 1970 he crashed into a goalpost in Chicago and tore up his knee. "The doctors told me I probably would never play again," he says.

The Black Hawks obviously thought Stapleton was finished, too, and refused to offer him a raise with his new contract. "I guess they figured I was a cripple and not worth any more," he says. For the first time in his career he worried about the future. He owned the cattle farm in Adelaide, but that alone would not support a family of seven. Then he had an idea....

"C'mon," Stapleton said to his 9-year-old son Tommy, "let's go home." Practice was over, and Stapleton was ready to go to work. He manipulated his new Thunderbird onto the expressway and drove to his five-bedroom Dutch Colonial house in Naperville, a quiet community some 30 miles straight west of The Loop. He politely declined the lunch his wife Jackie had prepared, then drove quickly to his office.

Stapleton, stung to action by his Black Hawk salary tussle, is the co-founder and president of Icearena Inc., a company that builds arenas for the low, low price of $600,000. Waiting for Stapleton when he walked into Icearena's five-room suite in the Lisle Professional Center were his partner, Dick Glassford, a secretary named Joyce and a bookkeeper named Carol.

"Any calls today, Joyce?" he asked.

"Yes, this friend of yours needs tickets for Sunday's game," she said.

He started to read his mail. "I should be able to go to that thing in Naperville," he told Joyce.

"It's a parade," she said. "They say you're supposed to be in charge of something. Here it is. You'll be the guest athlete and lead the Junior Olympians in a drill."

"Cripes," he said, "I can't do five pushups. Tell them I'll be there after practice. About noon."

"Dun and Bradstreet also called," Joyce said. "They wanted to know how many employees we have. I told them 32 full-time people and about 32 part-time."

"Good," he said.

On one wall of Stapleton's sparsely furnished office was a map of metropolitan Chicago studded with colored pins. "There are exactly 29 rinks in the Chicago area," Stapleton said. "The orange dots are the commercial rinks, the yellow dots municipal rinks, the red dots our rinks, the blue dots rinks we hear have been proposed and the red-blue dots rinks we are planning to build ourselves."

At present Icearena Inc. has two rinks in operation, one at Downers Grove, the other at Carol Stream, both within 20 minutes of the company's offices. "Rinks are a nickel-and-dime business," he said. "We're not going to make any quick bucks from them. I think, though, we are on the good side of what will be a great hockey wave in Chicago. I can see the day when there will be 150 or 175 rinks in Chicago."

For $600,000, Icearena can provide a so-called turn-key operation in just 120 days. "That includes everything from paper clips to the Zamboni resurfacing machine to one American and one Canadian Hag over the scorekeeper's bench," Stapleton said.

Picking up the phone, he dialed a mortgage broker in New York.

"Jim, are you still talking to me after your Rangers bit the dust?" he said. Then: "What do you mean 11½%. We got 7½% on our first building and 8¾% on the second. When's the rate coming down, anyway?"

When Stapleton put down the phone, Carol, the bookkeeper, came into the office with Glassford. "This is a list of delinquent people," she said. "I've sent them two letters already and given them a date when we'll send their bills to a collection agency. Do I give them a third chance—or what?"

Stapleton looked perplexed. "I'd pound it to them," Glassford said. "No, I guess Pat has his P.R. image to consider." After discussing the alternatives, Stapleton decided that he would send personal letters to the delinquents.

"All right, time for lunch," he said, "and then I've got to drive downtown and pick up Jack Zitzman. He's a man who's building a rink in Ohio, and he's giving us the money today." Stapleton drove next door to the King's Palace, a bastion of patriotism where the owner, Sam Sutter, stops everything in late evening and leads the diners in a chorus of America the Beautiful. Sutter would not let Stapleton pay for lunch. "If you hadn't won," Glassford said amiably, "nobody around here would know you."

Driving back into Chicago, Stapleton reflected on his career as a rink builder and manager. "I made a rule when we opened the Downers Grove rink that a buzzer had to go off every two minutes and the coaches had to change their lineups in kids' games," he said. "The coaches hated it. They wanted to win. I want the kids, all the kids, to play hockey. Who cares whether you win or lose at the age of 7 or 8?"

Stapleton's hockey future clearly is aligned with his rink-building interests. "I don't want to play in a city that has too many rinks," he said. "I want a place with virgin rink territory. Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Kansas City. Places like that. I still enjoy the game, sure. And I don't think I've lost anything. I'm trying to look down the road 15 or 25 years."

At Meigs Field, Stapleton parked his Thunderbird in a no-parking zone and went inside to meet Zitzman. "Good going against New York," Zitzman said. Stapleton shrugged his shoulders. "No last-minute problems, are there, Jack?" he said. "Let's sign the papers."

ILLUSTRATIONBERNARD FUCHSIn a typical encounter Pat gets a bear hug but keeps opponents at bay In fight for puck.ILLUSTRATIONBERNARD FUCHSA superpest at center ice. Stapleton often steals the puck and initiates Chicago rushes.