“Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

“The hockey world and players are like an extended family”, he says. “The person you fought with on the ice will have your back off the ice in anything that you do. We are a special breed…”. In my mind’s eye, as he shares his story with me, I realize that Lorne Stamler has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Hockey players and those who love the game are unique, but are bonded with one another. I think that this applies especially to the generation of hockey enthusiasts from the time that Stamler played the game; the colorful 1970s and early-80s were a magical time for hockey. And this former Los Angeles King, Toronto Maple Leaf and Winnipeg Jet is a very kind man, who possesses an immense understanding of the interconnection of each facet of hockey. The players, the fans, the coaches, the teams, the arenas, the dynasties, the heroes, the goats… Stamler’s introspective nature into hockey gives me both goosebumps and a warmth in my heart at the same time.

Lorne Stamler was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on August 9th, 1951, but would live there for only the first two years of his life before he and his family moved to Atikokan; a township in the Rainy River District of Northwestern, Ontario. It would be in Atikokan where Stamler would begin to play hockey. “I started to learn to skate at the age of two, and started to play organized hockey when I was three years old”, he tells me. I know that this is not an uncommon age to begin learning the game in Canada, but I marvel nonetheless at the tender age Lorne was when he first laced up his skates. “My dad was the coach, and my older brother Greg was one of my teammates. Ice time was never a problem, since the outdoor rink was by our house. We would skate before school, during lunch time, after school, and then would play our regular hockey game after dinner”, Stamler recalls. “This is what we did from the middle of October until the end of April; all outside”.

While I am sure that the same childhood memories ring true for seemingly millions of Canadian kids, there is something about the way that Stamler describes his youth that is warm and inviting. It was a different era indeed, and as far as the NHL was concerned, the 1950s and 1960s, prior to expansion, were arguably the game’s “Golden Age” – hockey at its finest. “When I was growing up, there were only six teams in the NHL. Living in Canada, if you were French, your team was Montreal; if you were English, it was Toronto”. So many of the great players from Stamler’s childhood, almost too many to name, have since been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Simpler times indeed, but a greater game perhaps. “I was always a Toronto Maple Leaf fan”, he recalls, “and my dream was to play for them some day. My favorite hockey player was always (Chicago Blackhawks legend) Bobby Hull, but (Toronto’s) Johnny Bower and Dave Keon were right up there too”.

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Lorne Stamler would see many of his childhood dreams come true, one of those being playing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

Though he was a Maple Leafs fan regardless, Lorne Stamler would soon find himself residing much closer to “Les Habitants” than Toronto, and would see himself delve further into the game as he worked his way from Bantams, to Midgets and Junior. “When I was eleven, we moved to Matagami, Quebec; about 600-miles north of Montreal. My dad was a miner and a master mechanic, so we went to where the jobs were”. A year before beginning his Junior career, Stamler regularly trekked back and forth between Matagami and the main town on the Harricana River, the town of Amos, Quebec – a distance of 114-miles – where he would play for the Amos Comets. “My dad and I would go to Amos three times a week for eight o’clock games, and get home at two o’clock in the morning. He would go to work, and I would go to school the next day”. Hard to even imagine, but the commitment was obviously there in Lorne’s heart from a very young age, and the support came readily from his parents.

While playing for Amos, Stamler was drafted by the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League for Major Junior hockey. Though he would assemble decent seasons with the Marlboros of 2-goals and 3-assists in 25-games played in 1968-69, followed by 6-goals and 12-assists in 51-games the following year, the initial transition at first was not that easy for Lorne. “I lived with a family there and went to York Memorial High School. The first three weeks that I was there, I was homesick”; though this would not last for long and Stamler had a great support network around him. “The family I lived with was exceptional and made me a part of their family. I still visit with their children to this day. My mom and dad were my rocks though; they would always call me after every game and boost me up. My second year there, Fred Barrett (former Minnesota North Stars and Los Angeles Kings player) lived up the road from me, so we became very close; still to this day”. Having numerous positives from family and friends carried over onto the ice as well, as Stamler and his Marlboro teammates would make it to the OHL’s championship that second season, but would lose the J. Ross Robertson Cup to the rival Montreal Junior Canadiens; Stamler would put up 4-goals and 7-assists during Toronto’s playoff run.

Recognizing that his success level in Major Junior was not necessarily translating into a direct route to a professional career, Lorne Stamler decided it was best to prepare for the future, perhaps envisioning the responsibilities that come with life after hockey. “I was a mediocre junior player, and I knew that I needed to get an education first”. College scouts recruited players on the edge of the professional bubble, if not outside of it, and when Michigan Tech sought out Stamler, he readily accepted the opportunity; the lasting impact upon him that attending university would have would be profound. With Toronto Marlboros teammates Graham Wise, Rick Quance, and Gary Crosby all considering attending Michigan Tech too, and eventually doing so with him, Lorne found the place where he was meant to be and play hockey. “The coach at Michigan Tech was John MacInnes, who was very well known as a great coach. So to get good coaching and an education was better than struggling in juniors”.

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Skating for the Michigan Tech Huskies, Lorne and his teammates made it all the way to the NCAA national championship in 1974. (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Thinking back on his time at Michigan Tech, Lorne is able to summarize the experience quite concisely – “Michigan Tech was the greatest four years of my life”. While posting a modest 8-goals and 5-assists in 32-games throughout his freshman campaign, the following years would see him become a most productive scorer, putting up seasons of 20, 17, and 26-goals in no more than 39-games each season. On top of that, Stamler would be named a Second Team All-WCHA player during his senior season (1973-74) and make a run with his fellow Huskies to the National Championship game that same season. As a quick summary of those four years at Michigan Tech, especially his senior year championship run, Stamler says “I received a great education while playing the game that I love. And to top it off, my freshman year I was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings (8th-round of the 1971 NHL Amateur draft, 103rd overall). Senior year was the most memorable because we had such a good team, and going to the Frozen Four in Boston will never be forgotten. I remember playing against Harvard in the first game, and we were losing 5-to-3 with about 3-minutes to go. We scored, and then scored again with just seconds left to tie it. We went into overtime, and our line scored the winning goal. Just an awesome memory. We lost to Minnesota in the finals, but the following year the same four pairings (in the Frozen Four) were in St. Louis and Tech beat Minnesota in the finals (Stamler had already graduated). I still go back to Tech every so often for reunions and see all the guys”.

I closely examine a photo that Stamler has sent me of him posing with skates on and stick in hand, wearing the long ago gold and royal purple colors of the 1970s Los Angeles Kings. I am a traditionalist, and I wish that the Kings never strayed away from those colors and jerseys to begin with; they are far more regal in my opinion than black and silver, or any of the variations that the Kings have had since. Stamler’s first NHL goal was scored November 28th, 1976 in the long forgotten McNichols Sports Arena against goaltender Michel Plasse of the Colorado Rockies; a team and a goaltender from a bygone era. I am imagining the retro jerseys of both teams, the purple colors at least partially emblazoned on both teams, as Stamler beats Plasse from the high slot.

I am anxious to learn of Stamler’s memories with Los Angeles. He tells me, “being drafted by L.A. was a big surprise. Being in college, we never expected to get drafted because they were not taking kids from there at the time. I think they (the NHL) knew we would stay in college and let the colleges develop the players like the NFL does. They had to offer you a contract, and I remember getting a letter from the Kings offering me $3,500 a year; that was enough incentive to stay in school. But at least when I graduated I had a choice to either go to camp or go out in the workforce”.

Beginning his professional career in 1974, Stamler would see his first two seasons with the organization being spent with their minor league affiliates; the former Springfield Kings of the American Hockey League for the 1974-75 season, and the Fort Worth Texans of the Central Hockey League for all of the 1975-76 season. Stamler’s numbers with the Texans in ’75-’76 were quite good, as he finished third in team scoring by posting 33-goals and 33-assists for 66-points in 76-games. Los Angeles would take note, and it would not be long into his third season of pro hockey that he would receive a promotion to the NHL.

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Stamler would score his first NHL goal November 28th, 1976 against the Colorado Rockies and goaltender Michel Plasse (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

“I was called up in 1976-77 because the Kings had a lot of injuries”, he recalls. Stamler had been in the midst of his second season with Fort Worth when he got the call. “I remember going into Colorado, and Krazy George was in the stands”. The Colorado Rockies were one of the many professional sports teams that Krazy George Henderson, the self-proclaimed inventor of “The Wave” and drum banging wild fan, worked for during his career. “My first goal was very exciting, and then when I scored another I thought I was good to stay for a while. Well, politics plays a big roll in the game, and thus I was sent back down to the minors”. Stamler would actually have a superb second season with the Texans both before and after his call up to the Kings, and he would finish the 1976-77 CHL season by recording 19-goals and 21-assists for 40-points in a mere 48-games, plus an additional 4-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games as well. Despite a brief stay in the NHL, Lorne fondly recognizes, “my dream had come true though. Playing in the NHL and scoring a goal; I was a happy camper…”.

Lorne Stamler would only play two more games as a Los Angeles King, as part of a brief appearance with the parent club during the 1977-78 season. Stamler’s all-time totals as a Kings player ended up being 2-goals and an assist scored in 9-games. But memories and friendships are not captured at all in numbers. The Kings of the 1970s possessed an array of colorful veterans, with whom Lorne would receive guidance and tutelage from. “Playing with (Marcel) Dionne, (Butch) Goring and all the other greats was very intimidating, but they took me under their wing and helped me every possible way”. Recently inducted Hockey Hall of Fame goaltending great, Rogatien Vachon, likely played the biggest role in adjusting Lorne to life in the NHL and Los Angeles. “Rogie was the biggest help; he had me up to his place for dinner several times because I lived in the hotel. He is one of the nicest people around”. Recognizing that everyone had a job to do just the same, Stamler kept things in perspective. “Everybody was helpful, but deep down you are fighting for a job. They wanted you to do well, but as long as it didn’t mean you taking their job”.

June of 1978 would see a good sized trade go down between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Lorne would see yet another dream come true by suiting up with the team that most of his childhood heroes played for. The Kings would ship Stamler along with tough guy Dave Hutchison to the Leafs in exchange for Brian Glennie, Scott Garland, Kurt Walker, and a 2nd-round draft choice that would eventually become one of the Kings’ all-time great defensemen, Mark Hardy. For Stamler, the trade brought excitement and much opportunity on the horizon. “Toronto was the team I wanted to play for when I was a kid and my dreams came true. Being traded to Toronto was a good thing because Roger Neilson was the coach, and he believed in specialty teams. I was a penalty-killer and my partner was Garry Monahan. We backed up Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler as the second set of killers. To play with greats like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, and Mike Palmateer was a thrill”.

With the Leafs, Stamler would play his most full NHL season up until that point in time. 45-games would see him contribute 4-goals and 3-assists. The stint in Toronto brought warm moments for he and his family, but bittersweet too. “My mom and dad got to see me play live and score a goal, so that kind of completed the circle. Dad was very sick, and after the game where I scored he went home and passed away shortly after. He had completed his journey in life”. Reflecting on what Lorne said, there is a profound gravity to his experience. Idolizing the Leafs, playing Major Junior in Toronto, living in Ontario, donning the Maple Leaf crest, having his parents see him play an NHL game before their own eyes, one of his last moments shared with his father. As each individual step was traced, it would not be until afterward that the circle on that portion of his life was complete. It is remarkable to contemplate this, and what Lorne must have felt at the time.

In 1979, the National Hockey League would expand to include four new teams out of the defunct rival World Hockey Association. The NHL welcomed the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets into the fold. With their seventh selection in the expansion draft, Winnipeg selected Lorne, nabbing him from Toronto. The inaugural season Jets were a very interesting team in many ways. They possessed talent in leading scorer Morris Lukowich, future firepower in “Miracle on Ice” gold medalist Dave Christian, leadership from Swedish great and team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, toughness coming from the likes of Jimmy Mann and Barry Melrose, and though briefly, even hockey royalty and greatness in the likes of Bobby Hull, Stamler’s number one boyhood hero.

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Lorne Stamler would see NHL action with three different teams; the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Looking back on the expansion Jets, there are fond memories for Lorne. Jokingly he says, “We had a great time in Winnipeg, but it was too cold”. But on a more meaningful and serious note, Stamler adds, “when I went to Winnipeg, it was another chance to continue my NHL career. I still had a lot of relatives there, so it was great to see them all again. Tom McVie was our coach, and he kept things very interesting, knowing we would struggle during our first year in the league. The two most memorable things though in Winnipeg were that my oldest daughter Loren was born there, and then in January Bobby Hull sat beside me in our dressing room. The thrill of playing with an idol of mine was awesome. I had a picture of me with Bobby, Ken Wharram, and Gump Worsley when I was eleven at Bobby’s hockey school in Hull, Quebec and I showed it to him; he said to me, ‘see where it got you!'”. Once again, things had seemed to come full circle for Lorne. Returning to the city of his birth, being close to family again, and the opportunity to play alongside his childhood hero.  In what would be his final NHL season, Stamler would finish 1979-80 having played 62-games, totaling 8-goals and 7-assists.

The Jets opted not to resign Stamler in 1980, and for a brief period of time Lorne considered calling it quits. New York Islanders scout and eventual Assistant General Manager Jimmy Devellano entered the picture, and ended up signing Lorne to the Islanders organization with the thought that he could be useful to the team on Long Island as they were enjoying the beginnings of their four-year run at the Stanley Cup. Lorne instead ended up being assigned to play with the Isles’ CHL affiliate Indianapolis Checkers. “I still wanted to play, so I went. Indy turned out to be awesome, and after my second year there I was working in the office and also served as a part-time player-coach. With the late Coach Fred Creighton, we won two cups back to back and I was a big help in those victories”. In fact, Stamler played in every playoff game for both years of the Checkers’ championship campaigns. Familiar Checkers teammates on those championship teams included long time NHL goaltender Kelly Hrudey, Stanley Cup champions Greg Gilbert, Gord Dineen and Mats Hallin, as well as former longtime Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. Rather remarkable too is that in the two years that the Checkers won the CHL championships, the New York Islanders mirrored the success those same seasons by winning the Stanley Cup.

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Stamler mixing it up in front of the Chicago net with defenseman Mike O’Connell and goaltending great Tony Esposito (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

After the four years with Indianapolis, it was time for Lorne to move on from hockey. Another completed circle. The last part of the circle for Lorne’s time in Indianapolis was the birth of his second daughter, Lisa, during his final season with the Checkers; a most fitting bookend to four wonderful years with the organization. “I retired in 1984. And at this time in my life, I have not had the blades on in seven years. I tried to get involved when Phil Esposito was getting the Lightning going in Tampa, but they didn’t want any help at the time. So at present, I am not involved in hockey”. Living in Florida, Lorne occasionally takes in an NHL game, but things have changed. “I go to one Lightning game a year. I am not a fan, but I like to sit in the nosebleed seats and see what should happen. The game has changed so much and has become more European; I really can’t relate to it”.

Lorne Stamler’s hockey career seems to be typified by very unique, purposeful but unpredictable circles of life that make complete and total sense once they are complete. Like I said at the beginning, it is very interesting to take notice of how Lorne recognizes, seemingly from the outside looking in at his life and his hockey, that everything is interconnected in one way or another; things happen for a reason. “I have learned many things throughout my career,  but most of all is – if you have a dream, don’t ever stop pursuing it. Things happen in a strange way, and the Good Lord will watch you every step”. As he tells me this, I have a bit of an epiphany – Lorne Stamler is absolutely, one-hundred-and-ten percent correct. Strange things do happen in our lives and in our careers, but they end up making sense in the end. Lorne has seen it take place a few times in his career and in his life. I have learned something from Lorne. Not just about his hockey career and his story. I have learned something about myself too. Perhaps we all can. We just need to keep following our own circles – every step!

 

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4 thoughts on ““Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

  1. Great article, thank you for writing about Loren and giving us all a chance to know him better. He is a very special man and he and his wife have been very good friends of mine for almost 25 years. I always knew he played professional hockey player but I had no idea. Thank you again for giving all of us a chance to know more about quiet man. He is now a loving husband, great dad and proud grandfather to 12 and soon to be 13 children.

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  2. I knew Lorne in Matagami, Que. and we used to play against each other in a town so small that it could only muster up two teams for each age bracket. I was a mediocre hockey player and that SOB would kick my butt every time, no matter what the situation. That said, he’s probably one of the most gentle souls to ever play in the rough-and-tumble NHL. Fond memories of a dude who slams you into the boards in a hockey game, but wouldn’t hurt a fly once he took his skates off.

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  3. I knew Lorne and his brother Greg back when we were playing hockey on an outdoor rink in Matagami, Que. Most of us were mediocre hockey players and then we had the Stamlers. Such gentle souls, but they wouldn’t hesitate to pound you into the boards and skate away with the puck. (I think they went a little easier on me just because they felt sorry for that skinny dude who was trying so hard but definitely not going anywhere.)

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