FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

He shared the goal-scoring lead in the first season the New England Whalers became the Hartford Whalers and joined the National Hockey League.

He and future Hall of Famer Ron Francis seemed to pull off “The Detroit Play” at the most opportune moment, helping lead to two of his four 50-goal seasons being in the NHL.

He was part of one of the most famous lines in Hartford Whalers history, and we don’t mean one-liners, though he certainly excelled in those as well.

He and Steve “Slap Shot” Carlson are the only players to play on the same team as Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe and Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky.

He ended his domestic 12-year pro career with the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks with his 10th season of at least 20 goals.

He and wife Cindy, a former Playboy bunny in Cincinnati, were treated like royalty during his six-month, come-out-of-retirement stint in northern Italy.

Yes, Blaine “Stash” Stoughton could put the biscuit in the basket with best of them from the time he learned to play hockey on the frozen tundra of Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, pop., 1,000, to his current job of teaching the game as coach of the University of Cincinnati in the city where he scored 50 goals with the World Hockey Association’s Stingers.

The NHL’s only 50-goal scorer to seemingly live in anonymity holds a special place in Whalers history, and he’ll be around this weekend to share his tales and special skills on and off the ice while playing for the Whalers legends team against the Boston Bruins legends Saturday at 4 p.m. in the start of the Whale Bowl, the featured attraction of the “ Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

“If I had been serious right from the get-go at 18, I would have had a better career, but I liked to have the good times,” the 57-year-old Stoughton said honestly. “But the way I look at it, it could be worse. I’m still on the right side of the grass.”

Thank God for the latter. And, oh, what good times Stoughton had.

Like the time he got back to the hotel after the season finale in Chicago around 4 a.m. and decided to wait for the team bus to take them to the airport for a flight to Hartford. Instead of going to bed, Stoughton, who hated to get up in the morning, gathered his belongings, lit up a couple of Marlboros and waited for the bus to come.

But Stoughton passed out on the stairs in 25-degree temperatures, and frost formed on his famous moustache. And who’s the first person through the doors in the morning? General manager and coach Larry Pleau.

“I looked up at him, and he looked down at me and said, ‘There’s my (bleeping) 50-goal scorer,’ ” Stoughton said with a hearty laugh. “I looked like one of those bums from under the bridge.”

Or the night that Stoughton was clowning around on the bench waiting to take a penalty shot with 10 seconds left in a tie game with the Buffalo Sabres while interim coach John Cunniff paced behind the bench.

“He was a nervous wreck all the time, and he was walking up and down chewing his fingernails,” Stoughton recalled. “I skated over to him and said, ‘Cunny, what’s your problem? You’re not shooting.’ Then he looks at me and says, ‘Will you get serious for one minute?’ I just laughed and said, ‘Cunny, relax. I’ll bet you $10 that I’ll score, and I’ll even tell you where I’m going to score for another $10.’

“Cunny is just going ballistic, so I say, ‘I’m going to go low stick side for $20.’ Sure enough, I skate in and, boom, off the post and in on the stick side. Cunny is just going ballistic, and he had to pay me right there in the locker room.”

Or like how he got his nickname “Stash” in his second NHL season while with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most everyone thinks it’s because of the Fu Manchu moustache he wore most of his career, but it actually stemmed from a game that was tied 2-2 after two periods. While he and his teammates rested during the second intermission, the usually quiet but brash Stoughton stood up and said, “Hey, guys, just keep the (bleeping) game close and I’ll STASH the puck and win it for us. The ironic thing is I did, and we won 3-2. From then on, I had to grow the stash.”

Or like the time Stoughton was driving from his junior team in Dauphin, Manitoba, to London, Ontario, where the Pittsburgh Penguins had training camp, without any radio contact and listening to Jimi Hendrix on his tape player. When he arrived in London, players were giving Stoughton a quizzical look and asking, “What are you doing here?”

Stoughton figured it was a typical gag joke by players so he didn’t pay much attention and started laughing. He went to the hotel check-in and was told he wasn’t registered. Then he looked at some other players who were laughing and he again figured they were playing a trick on him. Again the laugh was on him.

“I had gotten traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs (for Rick Kehoe) and didn’t even know it,” Stoughton said. “But I was kind of lucky because it was only about another 200 miles to Toronto. Then the trainer came by and said, ‘Hey, here’s your sticks.’ Then I figured it out. It was hilarious.”

Then there was the time Stoughton told Whalers rookie Jordy Douglas not to skate with his head down if New York Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin, a future Hall of Famer, was on the ice because he could end up in the hospital.

“Jordy goes, ‘Oh, yeah, don’t tell me what to do,’ ” Stoughton said. “Sure enough, Jordy slips the puck between Ken Morrow’s legs and has a smirk on his face because he had just beat the guy, and here comes Potvin. Boom!!! I went to see Jordy the next day in the hospital. He was in there for three days with a concussion. When I walked in, he said, ‘Don’t you say a word.’ ”

Or how Stoughton’s wife Cindy got more upset with his anonymity than he did. If Stoughton had played in Detroit like Howe or in Montreal like Guy Lafleur or in New York like Mike Bossy said, he could have been famous.

“It never bothered me,” Stoughton said. “It actually bothered Cindy more than me. She used to get mad that I didn’t get recognized nationally, but I said, ‘Hey, Cindy, it’s the market we’re in. There’s nothing we can do about it.’ Unfortunately, there was no free agency after six years like there is now.”

Still, Stoughton was part of the most celebrated holdout in franchise history. After tying Los Angeles Kings future Hall of Famer Charlie Simmer and Buffalo Sabres captain Danny Gare for the NHL goal-scoring lead in 1979-80 with 56, Stoughton missed the Whalers’ 1980 training camp and the start of the 1980-81 season because of a contract dispute. His WHA contract had ended the previous season, when the two leagues merged, making him a restricted free agent. But Stoughton sued the Whalers for $600,000 in damages and unrestricted free agency because he claimed he had not been offered a new contract before the collective-bargaining deadline of July 1, 1980.

The Whalers claimed they had met the deadline, but Stoughton stalled, saying the Whalers “for some reason” forgot to change his contract. They also argued the deadline wasn’t even an issue because the expired contract had been signed in the WHA, that a WHA contract was deemed to be a NHL contract.

“I had no representation in that,” Stoughton said. “I never signed anything agreeing to that, yet it went back to our player rep and a lot of legal (stuff).”

A federal court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the dispute, which was turned over to the NHL. On Oct. 3, 1980, NHL president John Ziegler ruled Stoughton a restricted free agent, entitling the Whalers to compensation if he signed with another team.

Stoughton continued to hold out for a long-term contract of $250,000, which was $65,000 more than was offered by the Whalers, who weren’t willing to sign him long-term and had the backing of the fans. Stoughton then tried to re-sign with the Maple Leafs, but they couldn’t agree on compensation with the Whalers. He finally signed a long-term deal with the Whalers for $160,000 a year and returned to the team on Oct. 29.

“Eventually I think I could have won,” Stoughton said, “but I would have had to go to Europe to play because it could have taken another whole year. Plus, Cindy and I were just starting to have a family, which was probably the deciding factor. If it was just Cindy and I, we probably would have gone.”

As it was, Stoughton missed the first nine games of the 1980-81 season, and when the couple’s second child was born in 1981, they named him Chance because of the “chance” they had taken over the contract.

“While I was holding out, I said we’ve got nothing else to do except to try to have another kid,” Stoughton said with a laugh.

Despite all his God-given talents and decent work ethic starting in juniors, Stoughton admitted his arrival in Hartford after the Indianapolis Racers folded on Dec. 15, 1978 in the WHA’s final season was his last shot at glory.

“There were a lot of things that kind of evolved at the same time,” Stoughton said. “I had had fun my whole life. Hockey just got in the way of my fun. Then I got married (in 1978), so you start to have more responsibilities than just yourself, so you slow down a little bit. Then when Cindy got pregnant with (first child) Chelsea, it woke me up a little bit.

“And (Whalers coach Don Blackburn) letting me do my own thing really helped, too. I was getting up a little age, but he had seen me play, so he pretty much said, ‘Do whatever you want to do but don’t take anybody with you when you go out at night.’ I felt comfortable because he wasn’t on my case. He just gave me a few on-ice things to do, and I just followed what he wanted me to do defensively and had carte blanche on the offense.

“I used to tease Ronnie and Mike Rogers and say, ‘Listen, guys, don’t even think about giving me the puck until you get over the offensive blue line. I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t score from center ice.’ They started laughing. So those three elements contributed to me getting serious.”

One thing for which Stoughton was always serious was scoring goals.

“I worked on it, naturally,” he said. “I have natural skills, but I worked on it a lot starting in juniors, not because anyone made me, but I just enjoyed scoring.”

Like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant wanted or want the ball in crunch time in the NBA, Stoughton wanted the puck as the clock wound down in the rink.

“I know as I moved up, there were some guys who were scared if they didn’t score,” Stoughton said. “They got stage-fright or something. But for some reason – and I don’t know why – it never bothered me. If it was 2-2 with five minutes to go, I never looked to dish if off to somebody because I didn’t want to be the goat.

“I wanted the puck and just kept working at it and getting better and better and better. I’d stay out after practice and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Instead of shooting at the goalie, we’d play games and try to shoot at the post. Then you have to get your confidence at every level, and then once you get your confidence and you’ve got some skill, then you’re off to the races.

“Every move from midget to pee wee to bantam, there’s a challenge every time, and you have to get better. You can’t stay the same because you’re really going backwards.”

Some of Stoughton’s most memorable goals came after the Whalers made Francis their No. 1 pick (fourth overall) in 1981. Francis began the 1981-82 season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League but got called up by the Whalers after 25 games. One night on a plane ride home after they had missed several good scoring chances, Stoughton and the rookie Francis chatted about how they could start converting to make a difference.

The two decided that instead of trying to draw the puck back on a face-off, Francis would go forward and then try to find Stoughton at the far post with the goalie playing the angle against the guy who would become known as Ronnie Franchise. It misfired several times and then worked to perfection in Joe Louis Arena for a 3-2 victory, christening “The Detroit Play.”

Stoughton and Francis worked their magic late in several games, the most famous coming with eight seconds left when Stoughton scored to beat the New York Rangers, 3-2. What made it so memorable was Francis won the face-off from former teammate Pierre Larouche, a two-time, 50-goal scorer himself.

“We always laugh about that one,” Stoughton said with a laugh. “Larouche takes the draw, and he had seen us do it before. I guess he was thinking that we’d never try it on him. It was hilarious.”

Stoughton also skated on several notable lines, starting in Cincinnati with the “LSD Line” with Richie Leduc and Rick Dudley and the “Bunny Line” with Peter Marsh and Greg Carroll because they all dated Playboy Bunnies.

“One of the funniest stories about that was when we were playing in Indianapolis in the playoffs,” Stoughton said. “Our three girlfriends all had Stingers shirts on with ‘Bunny Line’ on it, and some big fat guy sitting near Cindy and her two friends yells, ‘(Bleep) the Stingers.’ My wife turned around and said, ‘We do, and it’s great!’ The guy didn’t know what to say.”

After Stoughton arrived in Hartford, he was united with slick-passing Mike Rogers and gritty Pat Boutette on what was dubbed the “Dash, Brash and Stash Line.”

“We had the components of a good line,” Stoughton said. “Pat could do the corner work, and Mike was a pretty skater and I was a finisher. The ingredients were there for a good line.”

Stoughton’s arrival in Hartford also made him the first player to ever play with Gretzky and Howe, a uniqueness he would later have to share with Steve Carlson of “Slap Shot” fame who also is coming to town this weekend with his brothers, the fictional Hanson brothers. Stoughton had been with Gretzky in Indianapolis before The Great One was sold to the Edmonton Oilers with goalie Ed Mio and wing Peter Driscoll for $700,000. Years later, Stoughton learned from Oilers general manager Larry Driscoll that he had tried to get Stoughton in the trade instead of Driscoll.

“Oh, my God, can you imagine?” Stoughton said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s difficult to believe Stoughton reached such lofty status after growing up in such a small prairie town that didn’t even have a traffic light until he was 14. He played baseball and hockey growing up in Gilbert Plains and skated a lot on an outdoor rink near his house.

“It was great and where I learned a lot because there were no rules,” he said. “You go there when you were 10 and play against guys 16 or 17 nearly every day. We just chose up sides, but you can’t do that nowadays.”

Stoughton advanced through the local programs but quicker than most youngsters because of his skill level. But Stoughton never went to the hockey finals in his province of Manitoba, but his team twice won the Western Canadian championship in baseball for the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia as he pitched and played first base.

“Do you believe that for a little town like Gilbert Plains?” Stoughton said rhetorically. “I was left-handed, so I had a natural little curve.”

Stoughton played baseball until he was 16, which was two years after he left home to play for the Dauphin Kings in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. In his first season, Stoughton and the Kings got within a goal of going to the Memorial Cup, the Canadian junior championship. If the Kings had won, the country boys would have played the city slickers from Montreal who included future NHL stars such as Rejean Houle and Marc Tardiff.

“We would have got friggin’ smoked,” Stoughton said.

After two seasons with the Kings, Stoughton joined the Flin Flon Bombers in the Western Hockey League, where his goal-scoring prowess really surfaced after a slow start of 19 goals and 20 assists in 59 games, though his 181 penalty minutes showed he wouldn’t back down from anyone.

“The WHL was a very, very physical league,” Stoughton said, “and I knew if I didn’t show my physicality early that when I started to develop my scoring skills I wouldn’t have the room. So I just went out and played tough the first couple of years. Then as my skills evolved and I got pushed up to the second and first line, I had lots of room to operate because I had been an idiot for two years.”

Stoughton started strong in his second season in Flin Flon (1970-71), but he accidentally speared Don Dirk of Medicine Hat in the eye. Dirk escaped serious injury, but Stoughton was suspended for 29 games. He still finished the season with 26 goals and 24 assists in 35 games and then really took off in the playoffs with 13 goals and 13 assists in 17 games.

In 1971-72, Stoughton led the WHL in goals with 60 goals and finished third in scoring with 126 points. In his draft year of 1972-73, he scored 58 goals and was selected seventh overall by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and 14th (second round) by the WHA’s Quebec Nordiques in 1973.

But Stoughton was never happy while with the Penguins, believing he deserved to play in the NHL. After getting only five goals and six assists in the first 34 games of his rookie season, Stoughton was sent to the AHL’s Hershey Bears, where he had 23 goals and 17 assists in 47 games. The Bears won the Calder Cup championship but did it without Stoughton, who asked to be traded.

Stoughton got his wish on Sept. 13, 1974, when Pittsburgh sent Stoughton to the Maple Leafs for Kehoe, who spent the remainder of his career becoming one of the best players in Penguins history. He finished with 371 goals and 396 assists in 906 NHL games, retiring in 1985 as the Penguins’ career scoring leader and is now third behind Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

Meanwhile, Stoughton had two so-so seasons with the Maple Leafs while not seeing eye-to-eye with coach Red Kelly, and after finishing 1975-76 in the minors, he jumped to the WHA, signing with the Stingers. He finally blossomed into a 52-goal, 104-point scorer, much to the chagrin of Leafs fans. But that didn’t last long, as Stoughton’s play became inconsistent again over the next two seasons, when he had only 38 goals.

Much of that could be traced to the free-wheeling Stoughton playing for defensive-minded coach Jacques Demers, and the Stingers traded him to Indianapolis. When the Racers folded, he was picked by the Whalers, who reclaimed his rights from the Maple Leafs. They had regained him in the NHL-WHA merger but then left him unprotected in the 1979 expansion draft.

Stoughton finally reached his projected potential in the Whalers’ first season in the NHL, getting 56 goals and 100 points. He and Rogers became the first two Whalers players to reach 100 points, making the Whalers the first expansion team to achieve that feat. Stoughton also joined future Hall of Famer Bobby Hull as the only players to score 50 goals in both the WHA and NHL.

After missing a month of the 1980-81 season over the contract dispute, Stoughton still had 43 goals and followed that with 52 and 45. He played in the 1982 NHL All-Star Game and got the 45 goals despite being suspended the first eight games of the season for a high-sticking match penalty against the Penguins’ Paul Baxter in a preseason game in Johnstown, Pa., on Oct. 2, 1982. He had been tossed from the preseason finale for hitting Baxter above the right eye with his stick and opening a cut that needed six stitches.

Stoughton scored the first penalty-shot goal in franchise history when he beat Buffalo’s Bob Sauve on March, 29, 1983. That ultimately cost the Whalers the first overall pick because they won that game and tied for the worst record with the Minnesota North Stars, who got No. 1 because they had one fewer win.

After slowing down in 1983-84, Stoughton was traded to the Rangers on Feb. 27, 1984, leaving as the Whalers career goal-scoring leader. The Rangers hoped being reunited with Rogers would help revive Stoughton, but it didn’t as Stoughton didn’t get along with Rangers coach Herb Brooks.

“He and I were apples and oranges,” Stoughton said.

But Stoughton was part of one of the legendary stories during Brooks’ reign on Broadway. He used to drive back and forth from Hartford to New York every day, and one morning he was sitting in the driveway reading the paper when Brooks arrived about 8:30 a.m. Stoughton and Brooks hadn’t had any one-on-one chats, so Stoughton got into Brooks’ car and two started talking.

Ten minutes later, a limousine pulls up, the door opens, loud music blares, marijuana smoke fills the air and out steps Cher, Cheryl Tiegs and Carol Alt.

“You should have seen the look on Herb’s face,” Stoughton said.

Then came the clincher. The next three people out of the car are Rangers stars Barry Beck, Ron Duguay and Ron Greschner.

“Herb’s face was just white,” Stoughton said, howling. “He was used to coaching junior kids and telling them what to do, and these guys are loaded. They hadn’t been to bed yet. They had been to Studio 54 all night and came right from there to the rink in a limo. That was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Herbie didn’t know what the heck to do.”

Stoughton failed to make the Rangers out of training camp, went unclaimed in the waiver draft and was sent to the Nighthawks, never to play in the NHL again. But he was named the right wing on the All-Whalers team selected by the fans in 1992.

Stoughton retired in the summer of 1986 and then got his mortgage license and worked while living in Boca Raton, Fla.

“I went two years never having a pair of pants on,” Stoughton said. “Just shorts for two years straight.”

Then Gary Davidson, a longtime friend from Brandon, Manitoba, got Stoughton to come to play for Asiago HC in northern Italy that Davidson coached when his one import player was injured a week before the season started.

“Cindy and I had a great time over there,” said Stoughton, who had 10 goals and 16 assists in 15 games. “My buddy just wanted me to play until they could find someone else, but I told him I hadn’t played in two years. But I’d played a lot of tennis, so I was only about five pounds overweight and played about half of the season.”

After the brief stay in Italy, Stoughton and his family returned to Boca Raton, where he owned and operated a sports bar, and then moved on to Cincinnati to start his coaching career as a part-time assistant with the Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League in 1990-91. He then was an assistant for one season and remained with the team the following season when it moved to the International Hockey League, where one of Stoughton’s players was former Whalers left wing/teammate Paul Lawless, who had been playing with Graz EC in Austria.

After one season with the IHL Cyclones, Stoughton became an assistant to former Whalers defenseman/teammate Joel Quenneville with the Springfield Indians. But after two seasons in Springfield, Stoughton and Lawless reunited as partners off the ice, pooling their resources to purchase the Austin (Texas) Ice Bats in the Western Professional Hockey League, named himself general manager and remained in that position until June 1999. Meanwhile, Lawless played 30 games at the end of the 1996-97 season and three games the next two seasons, getting three goals and an assist.

“It was great,” Stoughton said. “We were drawing 5,000 a game in a really good city.”

But there were two major downers.

“We built our rink by putting ice in a rodeo barn,” Stoughton said.

Then there was the matter of trying to administrate a team.

“We had no idea what goes on up in the offices,” Stoughton said. “They were talking about hiring all these people for the front office, and I said, ‘Lawlie, all they do up there is play cards, don’t they? They don’t do anything.’ We didn’t know anything about season tickets and group sales, but we learned pretty quickly. If they don’t do anything in the offseason, you’ve got nothing during the season.”

Whalers Sports and Entertainment officials experienced that last summer when negotiations with Northland, AEG and Madison Square dragged on until 21/2 weeks before the season started. The delays prevented early season ticket sales, which were only about 450 as the Hartford Wolf Pack, and the rebranding of the team to the Connecticut Whale had to be put off until Nov. 27.

After three seasons with the Ice Bats, Cindy’s mother died, so the Stoughton moved back to Cincinnati, where he began coaching the Bearcats in 2007. Stoughton said he hadn’t heard of UC women’s basketball coach Jamelle Elliott, the former UConn standout forward and assistant coach, but planned to seek her out once he learned all that Elliott had accomplished.

Stoughton, who still holds the franchise record for goals in a season (56) and points by a right wing (100), was elected to the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame and later joined by close friend Douglas in 2005.

Stoughton is scheduled to arrive at Bradley International Airport with 31-year-old son Chance late Thursday morning, and they’ll be meeting former Whalers defenseman/captain Russ Anderson, one of Stoughton’s closest friends on the team along with Larouche, Lawless and Chris Kotsopoulos.

“Russ will pick us up, and we’ll go right over to the OTB (near the airport),” Stoughton said with a final laugh. “I’ll probably have an exacta by 1 o’clock.”

You’ll probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoys himself more this weekend than Stash.

Then again, that’s nothing new for one of the franchise’s all-time greats – on and off the ice.


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