When men’s hockey captain Ben Stafford ’01 skated off the ice after leading his team to an emotional 5-4 win over Dartmouth Feb. 24, New Haven fans thought they had seen the last of him as a hockey player.
But thanks to the UHL’s New Haven Knights, that might not be the case.
The Knights made the Yale captain their second-round draft pick two weeks ago, giving the senior a chance to continue his hockey career in the Elm City.
The selection came as a surprise to Stafford, who did not find out that the Knights had picked him until Yale assistant coach C.J. Maratollo told him several days later.
“I was happy, and it came as a real surprise” Stafford said. “It’s encouraging to know that people are looking me as a hockey player.”
Stafford completed his senior season, the most successful of his Yale career, with a loss to Harvard nearly two weeks ago. The senior played on the first line all season, amassing a career-high 46 points in 31 games. For his performance, Stafford was named to an All-Ivy team for the second straight season.
“I was happy with my point output this season,” Stafford said. “But it’s not as sweet as it could be because things didn’t go the way I hoped for the team.”
Stafford was one of the best all-around forwards in the ECAC, showing his offensive talents by finishing fourth in the conference in scoring, but making an equal contribution on defense that the stats cannot measure.
“There are really no weaknesses in his game,” said Yale head coach Tim Taylor, who recruited Stafford from Edina High School’s Minnesota state championship team. “He’s solid defensively, dangerous offensively, effective as a close checker, and he works hard in the corners. He’s the kind of kid that can excel in any style of game.”
Stafford certainly has the tools to play at the next level, but the transition from the college game to the pro level will be trying nonetheless.
“Obviously the speed of the game is much faster, and the players are much bigger,” Stafford said. “They just think the game faster; it’s really different when you don’t have that extra second to hold onto the puck.”
Aside from the pace of play, the longer season will be a big change for Stafford, if he chooses to play at the next level. While the Bulldogs only play 30 to 35 games a year, professional minor league hockey season are usually between 60 and 65 games long.
Stafford received an offer to play in the postseason from both the second-place Knights and another East Coast league team, but elected not to play any more hockey this spring in order to finish his senior essay and enjoy the rest of his time at Yale.
“I decided it’s not a good idea to play right now,” Stafford said. “There are the academic reasons, but beyond that it’s just hard to think of myself as anything other than a Yale Bulldog right now.”
Stafford has not yet decided whether to join the Knights, but he said he definitely wants to try his hand at professional hockey. He said he would be willing to play in Europe, but that ultimately it will come down to wherever he has the best chance to advance his career.
“It’s a very big decision that me and some of my teammates are going to have to make,” he said. “It’s not worth my while to not do it the right way. If I’m playing hockey 10 years from now, that’ll be great. But if I don’t, at least I’ll be able to rest easy knowing that I gave it a shot.”
Stafford said that he has consulted with his parents, teammates and Taylor regarding the decision.
“If he decides that this is what he wants to do, then I think he’ll be very well prepared,” Taylor said. “I think he’s capable of making the adjustment.”
For now, though, Stafford is focusing on coming to terms with the end of his Yale hockey career.
“I guess it just hasn’t sunk in yet,” Stafford said. “It’s still hard for me to believe that it’s over.”
Fans in New Haven are hoping that it won’t be, at least not in the Elm City.
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