By Sam Carchidi
The Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
It’s unlikely other American soldiers in Iraq have taken a route even remotely similar to that of former Flyers farmhand Ben Stafford.
In about two years, Stafford, a 21st-century Renaissance man who graduated from Yale with a history degree, went from pro hockey player to medical school student to Marine. After graduating Yale University, Stafford played pro hockey for four seasons, starting with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL. His 22 goals and 61 points in 58 games were second on the team, and earned him call-ups to the Phantoms, the Saint John Flames and Providence Bruins.
He also found time to marry his wife, Ali, during that span.
Stafford, a forward who scored the winning goal when the AHL’s Phantoms captured the Calder Cup in 2005, was deployed to Iraq on Oct. 5 and is an infantry platoon commander as a second lieutenant.
Flyers coach John Stevens coached the Minnesota-born Stafford with the Phantoms, and said he was a great leader and “low-maintenance guy” who always put the team first. Stevens keeps a photograph of Stafford, taken minutes after the Calder Cup triumph, in his office.
Jim McCrossin, the Flyers and Phantoms trainer, wears a dog tag with Stafford’s name and rank. He frequently sends Philadelphia-style care packages – complete with Tastykakes, newspapers and non-perishable items – that Stafford and his platoon can use.
In an e-mail exchange, Stafford, 30, who spent parts of four years in the Flyers’ organization before enrolling at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, answered questions from Iraq about his amazing journey.