Remembering Stephenson

Goaltender won Olympic bronze and beat legendary Tretyak

08.08.2010
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Former NHL and Team Canada goaltender Wayne Stephenson was one of the first goaltenders to sport colorful designs on his mask. Photo: Philadelphia Flyers

MADISON, USA – Every hockey player dreams of playing for a team that establishes a championship dynasty. But when your role is that of backup goaltender and you are the understudy to a legend, it’s a mixed blessing. Just as Michel “Bunny” Larocque will forever be known primarily as Ken Dryden’s backup for the Montreal Canadiens, a young Andy Moog took a backseat to Grant Fuhr for the Edmonton Oilers and Alexander Tyzhnych often watched the heroics of CSKA Moscow legend Vladislav Tretyak, Wayne Stephenson’s best-known hockey legacy is that as the Philadelphia Flyers’ backup to Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Bernie Parent during the team’s heyday of the mid-1970s.

But like the aforementioned goaltenders, Stephenson was a very capable goaltender in his own right. An old-school standup goaltender who relied on solid positioning rather than reflexes, the goaltender was known for his ability to look sharp even after sitting for lengthy stretches of games.

“Wayne was a real good goaltender,” recalls Bob “The Hound” Kelly, who played with Stephenson both in Philadelphia and the Washington Capitals. “Obviously, he wasn’t Bernie, but we played with a lot of confidence when he was in goal, too. He gave us a chance to win because he didn’t let up a lot of bad goals. There were a couple years there when Bernie was hurt and Wayne played a lot more games than people might realize. He was a bigger part of our success in those days than people think.”

Before establishing himself in the NHL, Stephenson had a distinguished career in international competition. The goaltender, who passed away on June 22 at age 65 after a lengthy illness, represented Canada with distinction before embarking on a solid professional career that lasted 10 seasons. After completing a highly successful junior career in the Manitoba Hockey League with the Winnipeg Braves, the goalie nicknamed “Fort Wayne” joined the Canadian national ice hockey team for the next six years, playing in tournaments around Europe and North America from 1966 to 1971.

The calibre of talent on Team Canada’s travelling national team was a decided notch below that of the iconic Canadian teams comprised of NHL players in the 1972 Summit Series and subsequent major tournaments. But in part due to its superior goaltending, the Canadians were able to beat most opponents with the exception of the powerhouse Soviet Union teams. Stephenson helped Canada win bronze medals at the 1966 and 1967 World Championships.

In the crowning achievement of his international career, Stephenson played an integral role in Team Canada’s bronze-medal victory at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. He was the victorious goaltender in wins against West Germany (6-1), East Germany (11-0) and Team USA (3-2), turning back 93.9 percent of the shots fired his way in the tourney. Ultimately, losses to silver medal winning Czechoslovakia and the gold medal winning Soviet Union resulted in a third-place finish for Canada.

Upon turning professional in 1971, Stephenson signed a contract with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. After spending part of the 1971-72 season with the minor league Kansas City Blues of the Central Hockey League, Stephenson made his NHL debut later in the campaign and served as the backup to Ernie Wakely. The following season, Stephenson played in 45 of the team’s 78 regular season games and then started 40 games in 1973-74 for a Blues club that missed the playoffs.

On September 16, 1974, the Blues traded Stephenson to the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 1975 second-round draft pick (later used to select Jamie Masters, who spent most of his career in Germany and Austria after a brief stint in the NHL) and the NHL rights to WHA player Randy Andreachuk. For a position player, a trade from a non-contender to a championship team would be cause for celebration. But it was a mixed blessing for Stephenson.

The Flyers already had the best goaltender in the league – and possibly in the world – at the time in Parent, which meant that Stephenson would only get to play sparingly. From Philadelphia’s standpoint, however, the trade was a steal. Stephenson was a significant upgrade over Bobby Taylor and soon proved to be an excellent insurance policy for when Parent was injured or simply needed a day off.

Stephenson sat on the sidelines as Philadelphia repeated as Stanley Cup champion in 1974-75. He did not enjoy the role and longed to be a starter. Something of a loner by nature, Stephenson often kept a respectful distance between himself and his Philadelphia teammates. Although he and Parent were never close friends, they maintained professional respect for each other even as Stephenson chafed in the role of backup goaltender.

The Broad Street Bullies had a rowdy and boisterous image on and off the ice. The club barely skipped a beat when Stephenson subbed for Parent in goal. Off the ice, however, Stephenson was never really “one of the guys”.

“Wayne was a real intelligent guy, a family man. He was always reading books, and we let him go his own way,” said former Flyers defenceman Joe Watson. “It was never really an issue. He delivered for us on the ice, and goalies are a different breed anyway.”

Stephenson’s best season in the NHL came in 1975-76. Parent was sidelined for much of the season due to a pinched nerve in his neck that required surgery. When he finally returned, he was in less than peak form. As a result, Stephenson played the majority of the games, including every game of the Stanley Cup Final as Philadelphia unsuccessfully attempted to defend its two consecutive championships against a Montreal Canadiens team that would go on to win four Stanley Cups in a row.

On January 11, 1976, Stephenson played the most famous game of his career when the Flyers took on CSKA Moscow in a game at the Philadelphia Spectrum. During the 1975-76 season, two Soviet club teams, the legendary Red Army team and the skilled, but less formidable Soviet Wings (Krylya Sovetov), toured North America and played a series of four games apiece against NHL clubs.

By far the most anticipated matches were those pitting CSKA against the Canadiens and the Flyers. Although technically exhibition games, the teams approached the matches with the same sort of focus and intensity usually reserved for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The final game of the tour was played at the Spectrum.

Entering the contest, the Red Army was undefeated. CSKA had thumped the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by a 7-3 score, played to a thrilling 3-3 tie at the Montreal Forum against the Canadiens and downed the Boston Bruins by a 5-2 count. With the Red Army unbeaten against the NHL’s top teams and the Soviet Wings posting a 3-1 record in their portion of series (the only blemish was a 12-6 pasting by the Buffalo Sabres), the Flyers found themselves in the unfamiliar position of receiving support from fans in other NHL cities.

“We were in Toronto for our last road game before we came back to play the Soviets. Remember, the fans in Toronto hated us. We won that game (7-3), and we got our usual reception from the crowd. But as we left, those same fans were cheering for us to beat the Russians,” says Watson.

With Parent unavailable for the game, Philadelphia coach Fred Shero tabbed Stephenson to start. The Flyers made life easy on their goaltender, limiting CSKA to just 13 shots on goal for the game, while firing 49 of their own on Tretyak. Stephenson did his part, limiting the Russians to a single goal on a shot that deflected in off defenceman Watson’s skate. Philadelphia won, 4-1, in a game that is best recalled for CSKA coach Konstantin Loktev pulling his team off the ice for 15 minutes in protest of a controversial first-period hit by defenceman Ed Van Impe against Soviet superstar Valeri Kharlamov.

In the three seasons following the 1975-76 campaign, Stephenson returned to his backup role to Parent. He was unhappy about his playing time and his salary, and sometimes clashed with club management. During this period, Stephenson became one of the first NHL goaltenders to sport a colourful design on his mask. In an era where most keepers wore unadorned masks, Stephenson began sporting a bright orange mask with large black Flyers logos ringing around his eyes.

Stephenson, who was selected for the NHL All-Star game in 1975-76 and 1977-78, started nine playoff games for the Flyers in 1977 after Parent suffered another injury. During the 1978-79 season, Parent suffered a career ending eye injury. Stephenson was pressed back into starting duty. After the season, the Flyers traded the 34-year-old goalie to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 1981 third-round draft pick (used to select Barry Tabobondung). Stephenson played two seasons with the Capitals, serving as starter in 1979-80. He was injured for much of the following season, playing just 20 games. Stephenson retired after the season.

After leaving hockey, Stephenson went on to a successful career in banking and made his permanent home in the midwestern U.S. In 2008, after Stephenson was diagnosed with a terminal illness, his sons attended the closing ceremony at the Philadelphia Spectrum on their father's behalf.

BILL MELTZER


Philadelphia Flyers netminder Wayne Stephenson makes a save against Valeri Kharlamov to defeat CSKA Moscow with legendary Vladislav Tretyak. Photo: DiMaggio-Kalish / Hockey Hall of Fame

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