Monday, August 18, 2014

Staszak: The First Philadelphian

For all intents and purposes, Ray Staszak is a footnote in one of the worst seasons by any franchise in modern NHL history.

He skated in a total of four contests for the Detroit Red Wings early in the 1985-86 season, recording his lone NHL point in his first appearance in a tie against the North Stars. Working under head coaches Harry Neale and Brad Park, the Wings finished a league and franchise worst 17-57-6 and surrendered more than 400 goals.

Despite those origins which seem much less than humble, it meant that Staszak earned a place in local history as the first player born and raised entirely in the City of Philadelphia to make it into the National Hockey League.

Not even Tom Brennan, born here in 1922 but who had to relocate to Canada in his teen years in order to hone his hockey skills before skating in 12 games with the Bruins from 1943-45, can claim that. 

Flourtown native Mike Richter might be the most famous, or infamous for those of you who are dedicated New York Ranger haters. Cherry Hill's Own Bobby Ryan might be the subject of the most fetishistic rumors, and Jay Caufield might have possessed the most petrified hands. Mark Eaton was from Delaware, and Eric Tangradi also turned heel like Richter and skated for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet, even in failure Staszak can claim to be something that none of the above can: the first college player to be signed to a million-dollar free agent deal.

The kid from the Northeast made headlines when the Detroit Red Wings, in the midst of a free-agent signing frenzy, inked Staszak to a whopping five-year, $1.4 million-dollar contract on July 31, 1985. Included in the bunch were such names as Tim Friday, Warren Young, Harold Snepsts, Chris Cichocki, Dale Krentz, Adam Oates and Petr Klima.

To what did he owe the honor of the sudden windfall? Two years in college and one stellar season with the now-defunct program at Illinois-Chicago, during which he led the Flames in goals (37) and points (72) in just 38 games, gained All-CCHA honors and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and a Hell of a lot of hard work. UIC's Hobey campaign even featured him in the mills of Indiana, touted as the "Man of Steel."

His rise to the top was as unlikely as it was swift. He didn't begin skating until he was in middle school. Having graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School in 1980, the undersized winger (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) had to take his talents on the road because, even five years removed from the Broad Street Bullies taking the hockey world by storm, players from Philadelphia simply weren't on anyone's radar. He spent one year with the Bux-Mont Glaciers (Junior B) in the Mid- Atlantic League season while working as a machinist, then another with a Minnesota club in the USHL where he garnered enough notice to snag a scholarship to UIC in 1983.

But after taking part in four of the first five games of that disastrous season, during which Detroit went 0-4-1 and was outscored to the tune of 35-13, Staszak was shipped up to Glens Falls to play for the Wings' AHL affiliate under future Flyers head coach Bill Dineen.

"He seemed to me to be in no-man's land. I thought he was a full step behind and having a tough time with the transition," then Red Wings GM Jim Devellano said at the time of Staszak's demotion. "He can go down, relax, start to unwind, start to handle the puck a little better and start to do some of the things he can. It looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Because he cares, he has pride and character, he wants to contribute and he wants to live up to his contract. That's unfair because no one can live up to that contract."

"That contract," which in short order came to be seen as an albatross (albeit one not stone dead and hawked by John Cleese) for the moribund Wings, provided desperate help to a family which saw its patriarch felled by a heart attack just prior to Staszak's college debut.

"(It) was a godsend," Staszak said to the Inquirer in 1987. "It was just under a mil, spread out you know. I helped my family immediately. I paid some bills, helped my sisters through school and put the family's mind at ease as far as where the next dollar was coming from. We're a low-middle class family, and with my father gone, it wasn't easy."

Staszak went to work, totaling 13 goals and 21 assists over 26 games with Adirondack -- which went on to win the Calder Cup in a stunning reversal of fortune. But disaster struck when he suffered a groin injury, then a pair of debilitating shoulder injuries which impacted his shooting. Rehab and more hard work failed to resuscitate the joint, and Devellano was forced to make a business decision and buy him out of his deal.

"It first happened when I was in Adirondack in the (American Hockey League) finals against Hershey," he said. "I felt the pain, but you don't quit at a time like that. Then I hurt it again at practice, in preseason (at the Red Wings' camp). Somebody pulled me down from behind near the goal. My shoulder started bothering me, but when you're in the position I was in -- second year, trying to make a spot on the team -- you don't give up. I kept playing all through camp, fought it to the bitter end."

Staszak suffered one final indignity during a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks in 1988, hurting the shoulder again while taking a hard check during a battle for the puck, and he finally hung up the skates for good. 

"When I came back from Vancouver, I figured it was time to let go for a while," he said. "It was the first time I'd given my body time to heal. I didn't play any hockey for four months, didn't do any lifting," Staszak said in a piece from the Inquirer in March of 1989.

Staszak returned to his Academy Road alma mater as a special assistant to its boys' hockey coach in 1989, and he's lived a quiet life since then. Cursory internet searches appear to have turned up that he lives in the far Northeast.

It has taken a little more than a generation for the NHL to come back around and openly court college free agents, though the hype surrounding UMass-Lowell defenseman Christian Folin last Spring didn't come close to reaching the publicity Staszak and his cohorts did.

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