The Verdict: Stapleton still up to old tricks
After 40 years, Pat Stapleton remains a person of interest in one of hockey’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Does the former star defenseman for the Blackhawks possess the clinching puck from Canada’s epic Summit Series against the Soviet Union? And if he does, will he tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
“My goodness, I know you’re the team historian in Chicago,” Stapleton was saying over the telephone. “But that’s ancient history. Don’t you write about current events? You have a nice club there in the Blackhawks. And you’re calling me about a puck?”
Well, we contacted Stapleton in part because of current events. The Los Angeles Kings recently recovered their landmark puck after winning the Stanley Cup. It was found in Patrik Elias’ equipment bag; he unwittingly tossed it there after his New Jersey Devils succumbed in the finals. Meanwhile, Patrick Kane’s 2010 overtime Stanley Cup winning disk in Philadelphia is still at large.
Stapleton was on the ice when Paul Henderson scored the famous tie-breaking goal with 34 seconds remaining in regulation, then remained on defense when Canada prevailed 6-5 in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972, to win a storied tournament that captivated both nations. Schools were let out, offices were closed and streets were empty across Canada when its native NHL heroes won a third straight contest in hostile territory to claim victory in a taut eight-game series, 4 to 3 with one tie.
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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“A huge happening in hockey history, as you would know, being a hockey historian,” Stapleton went on, playfully as ever. “We didn’t know much about the Russians, except their Olympic successes. We thought we were the only league, the NHL. The best league. We scored at 30 seconds of the first game in Montreal, then went up 2-0 soon after. But then they showed us they could play too. They beat us 7-3 that night, and we won only one of the four in Canada. Our whole country was in shock.”
Stapleton and his Blackhawk blue-line partner, Bill White, who will attend this weekend's Blackhawks Convention, sat out the opener. But they were inserted into a loaded lineup for Game 2 and became the most reliable defense tandem for Canada as the series progressed. Stapleton and White also kept everybody loose, or at least leery, with their pranks. The puck caper is vintage material for them. Despite film clips that show Stapleton grabbing the puck at game’s end, he neither admits nor denies owning it.
“Actually, to tell the truth,” Stapleton said, “Bill White has it. I might have taken it with me off the rink in Moscow, but Bill has it.”
When White heard that, he was nonplussed.
“Pat said I have it?” said White. “Well, you know better than to believe him, don’t you?”
Stapleton confused the issue in 2008 when he was asked to appear at a rink in his native Sarnia, Ontario, to honor the memory of Tommy Norris, a mentor. Norris’ son requested that Stapleton bring the puck to drop for a ceremonial faceoff. Stapleton obliged, sort of. He said he brought a puck, but that doesn’t mean it was the puck. Later, in a video interview with his sister’s daughter’s son, Brad Weed, the young man held up the puck in Stapleton’s living room.
“Oh, that was just a school project,” Stapleton said. “Brad did a nice job. But the puck? Brad mentioned it was the puck, I didn’t. I couldn’t have. Not unless we were in Bill White’s house.”
Stapleton was injured when Blackhawks general manager Tommy Ivan acquired White from Los Angeles in February 1970. When Stapleton healed, they instantly became a superior and complementary pairing. Also, Stapleton identified a co-conspirator to torment teammates, trainers, broadcasters and writers. Stapleton and White had Keith Magnuson “traded” on multiple occasions. Stapleton would deliver the grim tidings, then Maggie would seek out White, who faked sadness.
They were at it in Moscow, too. Stapleton and White wove a tale about this fabulous Chinese restaurant. Fellow players and some of 3,000 Canadian tourists took the bait, to the point of piling onto a bus for dinner one night. They stayed there for an hour, waiting for Stapleton and White to show up and provide directions. Never happened, nor did the “golf outing” Stapleton and White organized at one of Moscow’s finest country clubs.
“I feel bad about that,” lied Stapleton. “There were a lot of complaints about the food, so when Bill and I talked about this fabulous Chinese meal we just had, word spread real fast.”
Stapleton and a half dozen other Summit participants recently visited Russia in a 40th anniversary celebration. They had lunch with President Vladimir Putin. Stapleton raved about the hospitality and the food.
“We didn’t eat Chinese,” he said. “That was a pretty tense couple weeks in 1972. It became very political, and of course, a lot of Canadians were down on us when we went to Moscow, looking like we were destined to lose. People still talk about it up here, 40 years later. It wound up being an eye-opener for us, and as you’ve seen since then, there are a lot of Russians who come to the NHL and play well.”
Stapleton left the Blackhawks in 1973 for the rival World Hockey Association Chicago’s Cougars, where he was not only a player, but eventually coach, president and part owner. In 1975, he joined the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, where he became the first professional coach for a baby-faced prospect who was built like a thermometer.
“Wayne Gretzky,” Stapleton recalled. “He was just a kid, 17 or 18, skinny. You knew he had special skills. That was obvious. But for me to tell you that I expected Wayne would become as great as he did, I can’t do that. I don’t know how anybody could have predicted that. I know I didn’t. I’m not going to lead you astray here. I would never do that. But this idea that you’re phoning me after 40 years to talk about a puck, I don’t know what to say. I’ve got dozens of pucks up here on the farm. You called it an unsolved mystery, right? Well, that’s what most mysteries are, unsolved. You know what you should do? Give Bill White a ring.”