Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stempniak -- From Ivy League star to NHL longshot

By Larry Wigge

He is so smart that he graduated from an Ivy League school Dartmouth with an economics degree. But Lee Stempniak has never learned to be a consistent goal scorer.

With every hot streak ... a cold spell often would find him.

The slumps have gotten him traded from St. Louis to Toronto to Phoenix to Calgary.

But then, the Buffalo, N.Y., native, wasn't supposed to be NHL material at all. He was a fifth-round draft choice, 148th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

He's been around, which goes to his quick stick and goal-scoring ability. He is 30 now. But ... he got a 27-goal season to his credit in St. Louis in his second season in 2006-07 and one better the year he got from the Maple Leafs to the Coyotes -- 14 goals for each team -- in 2009-10.

Stempniak, who spent his college career at Dartmouth, where he was a two-time all-America pick and team captain last season, looks at this opportunity like a continuing education. Pretty heady stuff for a young man who was also an all-ECAC and Ivy League all academic selection. He majored in economics, graduated with an impressive 3.6 grade-point average and interned after his junior year with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

"When you talk to him or watch the way he handles himself on and off the ice, I was surprised to find out he's only 22 (actually 23 now) ... not 27 or 28," said veteran goaltender Curtis Sanford said. "He's really smart and composed."

"The first impression I got about Lee was how strong he is on his skates, how strong he is at making a power move and then make a good shot or pinpoint pass," said former Blues captain Dallas Drake. "There aren't many rookies who shoot the puck on the move like he does."

Kids who show signs of stepping up above the normal rookie skills and nervousness have usually had a hard childhood or have an axe to grind. Stempniak falls into the latter category ... a little bit.

By his own admission, Lee was a late-bloomer.

"My parents wanted me to go to college, but the only school that showed an interest in me as a hockey player was Dartmouth," Stempniak said. "It was a program that had been down for a number of years and Bob Gaudet, the coach, sold me on the idea that I would get a great education and have the opportunity to be a big part of the team's resurgence."

Gaudet was right on both counts.

There are no scholarships in the Ivy League. But that didn't matter to Larry and Carla Stempniak. They had confidence that their son was going to be a success no matter what course he took in life. After all, Lee was the valedictorian of his senior class at St. Francis High School in Buffalo along with all sorts of other scholastic prizes.

Even though hockey is a big part of Stempniak's life right now, he definitely has a lot of options in other fields of business.

"Going to Dartmouth was an experience for me that I would never change," Lee said. "Dartmouth was truly higher education through and through. The atmosphere, the surroundings, the chance to grow and mature. Where else can you say that you graduated with a one friend who is writing music successfully and another who is just 21 and already is a published novelist? The whole four years there was a mind-blowing experience for me."

Stempniak lists golf and reading as his off-ice hobbies. But not just any light reading. When I sat down to interview Lee in mid-February, he told me he was reading a book called The Alchemist written by noted Brazilian storyteller Paulo Coelho.

Lee loves to give credit for what he's become to his parents for raising him to reach for the stars.

Larry Stempniak works in a book bindery factory and Carla works for the Buffalo postal department, the third shift that goes from 9:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

"They drove to something like 33 of my 35 or 36 games at Dartmouth," Lee said with a very caring tone to his voice. "They are both big fans. They drove to Columbus and Detroit to see me play earlier in the season -- and they bought a satellite dish to watch Blues games.

"It isn't always easy for mom. Our home games start at 8 in Buffalo and she watches until 9 before she has to go to work. Sometimes dad will call her during the games if something big happens. Sometimes she will call home if it is an important game. Otherwise, he TiVos the games and she catches up on me when she gets home."

Larry and Carla Stempniak never pushed Lee into hockey. But it didn't take long for Lee to switch from baseball to hockey.

"I remember playing baseball as a kid, but my dad asked me one day if I wanted to play hockey," Stempniak said. "A week later, I was out there with a Sabres jersey on ... and I never looked back."

That was at a time when Pat LaFontaine, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny were the Sabres big scorers and Dominik Hasek flashed his magical goaltending skills on a nightly basis.

One of Stempniak's biggest thrills this season was getting to face Andreychuk in Tampa on December 8.

"Dave was a rookie with the Sabres the year I was born, but I remember when I growing up watching and liking the fact that he could find so many ways to score goals," Stempniak said, finally showing a bit of the kid in him. "To end up on the ice against him was just unbelievable.

"After the game, I asked one of our trainers to ask for an autographed stick for me and Dave was more than happy to accommodate the request. That was really cool. It's a night I won't soon forget."

With each game, Lee Stempniak is adding memories he won't soon forget.

Stempniak laughed when I asked if he ever played lacrosse. It was my way of finding out if the great hands he shows for the Blues came from that sport that has helped produce some pretty good hockey players like Joe Nieuwendyk and Adam Oates.

"No lacrosse," he said. "I was lucky enough to know a couple of guys who ran the rink in our neighborhood in West Seneca, N.Y. They let me in to work on my skating and my puck skills. It was there that I think I developed the feel for the puck that I have and the hands you're talking about."

There are no shortcuts to success in the NHL ... and Lee Stempniak is still find out how tough it is.

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