Tim Stapleton is having a hard time believing he’s still playing for the Winnipeg Jets this late in the season.
Stapleton has spent much of his hockey career bouncing back and forth from the minors to the NHL. He’s moved up and down so often he takes nothing for granted and jokes about never unpacking his suitcase. He was so certain the Jets would do the same thing he didn’t even rent an apartment in the city during training camp last fall, preferring to stay on teammate Blake Wheeler’s couch so he could make a quick exit. And when the Jets put him on waivers on the last day of training camp, Stapleton felt certain he was on the way out.
But it didn’t happen. Instead of sending him to Winnipeg’s farm team, the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League, the coaches told Stapleton to keep showing up for practice.
He’s still here. It’s the first time Stapleton has ever stuck this long with an NHL team and, as Winnipeg fights for a playoff position, the 29-year old winger is easily among the happiest players in the locker room. “It has been a roller coaster,” he said Monday almost pinching himself for fear it could end suddenly. “It’s all new to me. I’m just trying to have fun with it.”
Just 5 foot 9 and 180 pounds, Stapleton has managed to find a niche for himself on the Jets’ fourth-line. He has eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points, by far his best NHL production. “He’s got really good speed and I thought that really helped that line go,” Jets coach Claude Noel said, “because of his ability to get up and down the ice quickly and get on the fore-check or on the rush.”
Stapleton said he knows his role on the team and credited Noel for giving him a chance to prove himself. “Claude is probably one of the more honest, if not the most honest, coaches I’ve played for,” he said. “If you are playing well he’s going to play you. So once I sensed that I just knew if I could just play well I’ll play more and get rewarded more and I think that’s kind of what has happened.”
It hasn’t always been that easy.
Born in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, Stapleton never figured his hockey career would go much beyond high school until a friend convinced him to try out for a touring team. He made the team and eventually landed a scholarship at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After a decent college career, Stapleton went undrafted by the NHL in 2006 so he made his way to Finland where he joined Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League.
He spent two seasons in Finland, scoring 39 goals in his second year and finishing fifth in league scoring with 62 points. That caught the attention of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who signed Stapleton as a free agent in 2008. The Leafs promptly sent him to their AHL farm team, the first of many back and forth moves. In 2009, Stapleton got traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, who sent him to the minors, put him on waivers, left him unsigned and then reacquired him. He also had a brief stop with the Phoenix Coyotes’ farm club.
Until this season, Stapleton’s longest stint in the NHL was 45 games last season with the Thrashers. “It’s just kind of part of my job, I guess. It’s been kind of part of my career. So I’m pretty used to it,” he said. “I try to make the best of it.”
When the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg last May, Stapleton didn’t know what to expect. But now that he’s confident he’s here for the rest of the season, which he wasn’t sure about until the Feb. 27 trade deadline, he couldn’t be more excited about his first playoff push.
“Here the city is just crazy right now with all the hype,” he said. “People actually recognize me. It takes them a while, but they do.”
So has he signed a long-term lease on a condo yet? “Nope. Month to month.”