ROCHESTER (LGS) — "YEAH!"
That was the sound Buffalo Sabres' fans heard coming through their TV sets before Rick Jeanneret could scream, "SCORES!" with 12:03 remaining in the second period on November 11 in Philadelphia. The person shouting "yeah" was Sabres' prospect Drew Stafford, who had just scored his first National Hockey League goal. Watch and listen.
"I celebrated that one pretty loudly," Stafford said with a laugh recently. "I was the first person to see it go in."
After getting the puck at the bottom of the faceoff circle, Stafford put a quick shot on net that made its way past Antero Niittymaki to give Buffalo a 3-1 lead.
"It was a relief to get the first one out of the way. It was special because my parents were in the stands. All the guys were congratulating me, but it hadn't really hit me yet."
The goal was the icing on the cake for a whirlwind week that saw Stafford make his NHL debut, and register his first point, on November 5 against the Rangers. The first-year pro assisted on Daniel Briere's game-winning goal in overtime to help lead the Sabres to a 5-4 win.
"It happened so fast, and I think that made it easier for me," said Stafford. "I was getting on the bus after playing in the Manchester and Springfield road trip and Randy (Cunneyworth, Amerks' head coach) pulled me aside and told me I had been called up. The next thing I know I'm riding in a limo with Danny (Paille) on our way to Madison Square Garden.
"It didn't give me too much time to worry about what was going on. I was able to just go out and play."
Brushes with great ones
That Stafford scored so early in his career shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Stafford has produced great offensive numbers everywhere he has played. Whether it was with the Shattuck Academy in high school (49g, 67a – 116p his senior year), North Dakota Fighting Sioux in college (48g, 70a – 118p), Rochester (8g, 5a – 13p) or Buffalo (2g, 3a – 5p), he has seemingly scored with ease. But then again, what would you expect from someone who hung out with the top two all-time scorers in the National Hockey League as a child?
Stafford's uncle, Barrie, has been the head equipment manager with the Edmonton Oilers for the past 22 seasons, which provided Stafford the opportunity to hang out with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
"Living in Wisconsin it was great. Whenever Edmonton would come to Chicago I would go there and mess around with the guys in the room after practice," said Stafford. "I moved to St. Auburn, Alberta for a while and it gave me an opportunity to help out at training camp which was pretty neat."
While playing his high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's Academy, Stafford had the chance to play with some pretty good hockey players. His junior year he played with current New Jersey Devil Zach Parise, and his senior year produced a national championship. It also provided an opportunity to play with a sophomore named Sidney Crosby.
"You could tell even then Crosby was going to be special," Stafford said about the Pittsburgh Penguins' star. "He just made the most incredible passes. He was fun to watch then, and he still is now."
Sampling the pro game
After finishing up high school Stafford took his talents to the University of North Dakota to play for the Fighting Sioux. College was an experience that he remembers fondly.
"It was great. The facilities were top-notch, and we played every game in front of about 12,000 people."
While in college Stafford was chosen to represent the United States in the World Junior Championships. The highlight was being a part of the first US team to win gold at the prestigious tournament, as the USA defeated Canada in the gold medal game.
"It was an incredible experience," the 6'2" right winger remembers. "Beating our biggest rival, especially a team that was stacked like they were that year, was fun. We got some lucky breaks in the final period to help us win."
"We also had a great coach in Mike Eaves."
His World Junior experience with USA Hockey has Stafford convinced that despite their poor showing in Turin, Italy last February, the program is heading in the right direction.
"There are a lot of great young players coming up through the program."
Does Stafford have aspirations of playing in the Olympics? You bet.
"I played in the World Championships last spring, and that gave me a taste of the pro game. I hope to keep getting the chances to play and improve my game for a chance to play in the 2010 games (in Vancouver). I know that 2010 will be different (for USA hockey's performance in the Olympics)."
After his junior year at North Dakota, the exercise science major was faced with a decision. Sign an entry-level contract with Buffalo (who had drafted him as the 13th overall pick in 2004), or return to North Dakota for his senior year. Stafford chose to go pro.
"After the World Junior Championship I felt that I was ready to move on. I talked with my coaches, and they were fine with it. They were happy with my decision to move on."
It's been a hectic beginning to his pro career, as Stafford has split time between Buffalo and Rochester. Stafford has taken it in stride.
"It was hard going back and forth between Rochester and Buffalo. I wasn't able to practice with the Sabres, but it was still a great experience. It's part of the pro lifestyle though (being recalled and sent down), and you have to deal with it."
"In college you get into routines of going to class, and now in the pros you take care of your body and work on your performance."
"You've got to be ready for everything and be ready when they call on you."
Loaded with talent
Stafford figures to have a lengthy career in professional hockey. His amateur and professional statistics prove that he is a talented player who is poised to produce at the National Hockey League level. However, if for some reason hockey should not work out for Drew, he has plan B ready. He's going to be a rock and roll star.
While Stafford was in college, he and current Lowell Devil goaltender Jordan Parise (Zach's brother) formed "Red Seal Peach" for something to do in their spare time. (Listen to some of their music on their MySpace page.)
"It's fun. In my spare time I write stuff. I play the drums and the guitar. We got our start in college, and word got out about us. We had a bit of a cult following."
"I'm building a studio in my house. Jordan and I live in the same town in the summer, so we'll spend some time and write stuff."
Who knows, perhaps after a deep run in the Stanley Cup finals, Stafford will hop on a tour bus and perform again in front of sold-out arenas. Such an accomplishment surely would be met with one more resounding "yeah!"