Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wayne Stephenson, hockey goalie (1945-2010)


By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 28, 2010

As a hockey goaltender, it was Wayne Stephenson’s burden to be an understudy.

He spent much of his career as a backup, playing second fiddle to Bernie Parent on feared Philadelphia Flyers teams.

Stephenson’s name is engraved on the Stanley Cup and he won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics, yet he remained far less celebrated than such contemporaries as Parent and Ken Dryden, with whom he also once shared netminding duties.

He played in two All-Star Games in the National Hockey League. He also was the victorious goalie in a famous 1976 game pitting the Flyers against the Soviet Red Army team.

A solid if unspectacular netminder, Stephenson was known for a quick glove hand and for being sharp in playing the angles when facing shooters. His teammates dubbed him Fort Wayne.

The 5-foot-9, 175-goalkeeper was an even-tempered and law-abiding figure with the Flyers, notorious scofflaws who intimidated opponents with a bullying style. The little goalie endured barbs from his own teammates, including the bruising defenceman Bob Dailey, who stood eight inches taller and liked to hum the satiric Randy Newman song, “Short People.”

Frederick Wayne Stephenson was born in Ontario at Fort William (now Thunder Bay) on Jan. 29, 1945, to Lillian (nee Horsfall) and Fred Stephenson, who owned an air-conditioning business. The family moved to Vancouver and Calgary before settling in Winnipeg when Wayne was a teenager.

He played junior hockey with the Winnipeg Braves, earning a reputation as an up-and-coming athlete. (On graduation, his classmates at Grant Park High presented him as a gag gift a goalie stick with a puck-shaped hole in the blade.) He had particular success thwarting the scoring efforts of his younger brother, Brian, who played for the rival Warriors.

The Edmonton Oil Kings selected Stephenson as a roster addition in their unsuccessful challenge for the Memorial Cup in 1965.

That fall, the goalie joined the national team program run by Father David Bauer, a Basilian priest whose vision it was to forge a team of student athletes to represent Canada. Stressing discipline and teamwork, Fr. Bauer sought skaters whose behaviour would be unassailable off ice as well as on.

As admirable as was his goal, the priest was sending clean-living young men against Soviet and Czechoslovakian players who were professional in everything but their official status. The Canadians had the extra burden of doing so while wearing the colours of a hockey mad nation for which anything less than victory was unacceptable.

Stephenson suffered the disappointment of being cut from the roster just before the opening of the 1966 world championship at Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. The 20-year-old prospect was dropped in favour of Seth Martin, the 31-year-old veteran who had backstopped Canada’s most recent world championship in 1961.

On New Year’s Day, 1967, the national team faced the Czechs in the opening game of a tournament to mark Canada’s Centennial. Ken Broderick got the start, but coughed up two early goals and was yanked by coach Jackie McLeod. Playing before a large hometown crowd, Stephenson played brilliantly in a comeback victory.

The two goalies shared duties at the 1968 Olympics held at Grenoble, France. Stephenson allowed a single goal in a 6-1 defeat of West Germany before shutting out the East Germans in a 11-0 shellacking. But he surrendered two goals on five shots in the first period against the Americans and was pulled in favour of Broderick, who went on to complete the tournament.

The final game settled the medal standings, as the Soviets pushed five shots past Broderick in a 5-0 drubbing for the gold medal. The Canadians took bronze.

Stephenson returned home disappointed but determined to win the gold at the next Olympics in four years.

After Broderick turned professional, Stephenson became the national team’s top goalie. During a practice in Sweden before a world championship tournament, he was struck on the ear by a puck, receiving a cut needing six stitches to close. The team cabled a young college goalie in Toronto to join the team. Ken Dryden shared duties with Stephenson for the year.

In 1969, the Soviet national team came to Canada for an eight-city, eight-game tour, a precursor of the legendary Summit Series that would be held three years later. Dryden surrendered nine goals in a loss in Vancouver, while Stephenson responded by limiting the Soviets to a single goal in a victory in the next match at Victoria.

In a game seen by 15,614 boisterous fans at Maple Leaf Gardens at Toronto, the Soviets peppered the Canadian net with shots “but Stephenson frustrated them with his bewildering saves,” Globe hockey writer Rex MacLeod reported on Canada’s 3-2 win.
Soon after, Canada pulled out of the world championships and the Olympics in a dispute over the use of professionals.

Stephenson married fellow university student Nedina Jordan in 1970. He worked as a chartered accountant after graduating from the University of Winnipeg with an economics degree.. To stay in shape, he joined the Winkler Royals of the Southeastern Manitoba Hockey League. Instead of facing the Soviets and Czechs, the goalie thwarted the best snipers of amateur teams like the Oakville Seals and Altona Maroons.

Lynn Patrick, general manager of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, signed Stephenson to a 30-day trial. The goalie would retain his amateur status, remaining eligible for the 1972 Olympics. The Blues covered his living expenses, but did not pay a salary.

Stephenson faced the fearsome Boston Bruins in his NHL debut on Jan. 30, 1972. He enjoyed a clean scoresheet for the first period, stopping 10 shots, but the Bruins scored four times in the second period, including a pair of short-handed markers 35 seconds apart by Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson. Stephenson and the Blues lost, 5-2.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” the rookie said after the game. “The Bruins are a real good shooting club. You might as well learn from the best.”

He turned professional, spending the season with the Kansas City Blues farm team before becoming a Blues regular for the 1972-73 season. After the Blues missed the playoffs in 1973-74, Stephenson had the good fortune of being traded to Philadelphia, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

He saw only spot duty behind Parent, on whom the Flyers depended as they sought to repeat. In the warmups before the start of a semifinal series against the New York Islanders, Parent took a shot from teammate Gary Dornhoefer on the inside of his right leg. The goalie crumpled to the ice in agony before limping to the locker room on one leg. He emerged with a cast from his thigh to his calf. Minutes before the start of a pivotal series, the backup found himself in the spotlight.

“It’s all part of the job,” he said with a shrug afterwards.

He confessed to having jitters.

“I was a little shaky in the first period. I had to stop that first shot. If I missed it I might have been in trouble.”

He stopped all 21 shots he faced, as the Flyers won, 4-0. Stephenson was mobbed by his teammates after the game. He celebrated with a can of Schaeffer beer. Newspapers hailed his shutout as a hockey fairy tale.

He won the next game, too, before Parent was able to return to his regular duties, having suffered only a serious bruise.

The Broad Street Bullies, as they were known for the pugnacious style, once again claimed the Stanley Cup.

Parent missed much of the following season with a back injury. Pressed into the starting role, Stephenson recorded 40 wins, 10 losses, 13 ties. He and Parent shared netminding duties early in the playoffs, but Stephenson was the starter when the Flyers took on the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. Across the ice, he faced Dryden, his old national teammate. Montreal swept the series, winning each of the first three games by a single goal and the final by two.

In the offseason, Stephenson sought a salary increase to reflect his new role with the team. The Flyers balked, and the goalie sat out the first two months of the next season before rejoining Philadelphia in December, 1976.

He ended his career by playing two seasons for the Washington Capitals. In nine NHL seasons, he had a regular season goals-against average of 3.06.

The game in which Stephenson took greatest pride was an exhibition against the Soviet Red Army team at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on Jan. 11, 1976. The game is remembered for the Soviets leaving the ice to protest violent play. They returned, only to lose, 4-1, to a satisfied Stephenson, who felt the game was redemption, of sorts, for not getting a chance to defeat the Soviets at the Olympics.

Off the ice, he worked for banks in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was while living in West Barnstable, Mass., that he received a terminal diagnosis of brain cancer two years ago. He survived beyond his six-month prognosis, moving with his wife to Madison, Wisc. He watched on television this winter as both the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams won gold medals at the Olympics in Vancouver.

Frederick Wayne Stephenson was born on Jan. 29, 1945 at Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ont. He died of brain cancer on June 22 at Madison, Wisc. He leaves Nedina (nee Jordan), his wife of 39 years; two sons; two daughters; three grandchildren; and, a brother.

2 comments:

alyas33 said...

The Bruins took a shot on the son of a Hall of Famer in round eight, grabbing Peter Stastny’s son Yan out of Notre Dame. After the center spent two seasons overseas with the Nuremburg Ice Tigers, Stastny found his way back to the Bruins’ organization thanks to a trade with the Oilers in 2006.

Vicki-Lynn and Ian Dutton said...

When he was playing for the Winkler Royals, I was playing for Fort Garry Blues. Stephenson joined the Royals mid-way through the season, and all of a sudden Winkler had a goalie, and a team, we could not beat. Great memories.