Pat Stapleton, the first defenseman in NHL history to have 50 assists in a season and a three-time All-Star with the Chicago Black Hawks, died Thursday. He was 79.
Stapleton played 10 seasons in the NHL, the final eight with the Black Hawks. He teamed with Bill White to form one of the League’s best defense pairs in the early 1970s, helping Chicago advance to the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973. Stapleton’s best offensive season was 1968-69, when he scored 56 points, including 50 assists, the most by an NHL defenseman at the time. The record didn’t last long; Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins broke it in 1969-70 with 87.
“Pat was short but he was real stocky, good on his skates,” longtime teammate and Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Tony Esposito said of Stapleton, who was 5-foot-8. “He was hard to knock off the puck. They might say he was 180 pounds, but I think he was 185 or 190 when I played with him. He played with Bill White and they fed off each other. They were dynamite.
“I remember Pat could move the puck out of our zone real well, carry it and feed it off. It’s important to have guys like that, guys who pick up the puck and don’t give it away. He rushed when he had the chance, but he was pretty much a stay-at-home guy. Very mobile, quick and real smart. He couldn’t go head-to-head with a guy who was 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, but he managed somehow to come out with the puck a lot.”
Stapleton finished his NHL career with 337 points (43 goals, 294 assists) in 635 games and 49 points (10 goals, 39 assists) in 65 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Of those 49 points, 34 (five goals, 29 assists) came in Chicago’s two postseasons that ended in the Stanley Cup Final.
“He was a very steady player,” longtime Montreal Canadiens forward and Hockey Hall of Famer Yvan Cournoyer said. “He always gave 100 percent on the ice because he wasn’t a big man for a defenseman. He had to be good to play that many years in the NHL.”
Stapleton was born in Sarnia, Ontario, on July 4, 1940. He helped St. Catharines win the Memorial Cup in 1960, then signed with the Black Hawks and played one season with Sault Ste. Marie of the Eastern Professional Hockey League. The Boston Bruins selected Stapleton in the 1961 NHL Intraleague Draft, and he played 1 1/2 seasons with Boston before being sent to Portland of the Western Hockey League, where he was named the WHL’s top defenseman in 1964-65.
The Bruins traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs on June 8, 1965, but the Black Hawks claimed him the next day in the intraleague draft.
Stapleton quickly became a regular for the Black Hawks. He was a Second-Team NHL All-Star in 1965-66, when he finished third in voting for the Norris Trophy, and was named to the Second All-Star Team in 1970-71 and 1971-72.
“I played with him in Chicago. I really liked Patty a lot,” said Hall of Fame forward Phil Esposito, a teammate from 1965-67. “Just his demeanor. He had a tremendous sense of humor, maybe people don’t know that, but he was such a little bug. He was always smiling, always laughing, making all these little snide jokes.”
Stapleton played for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, and Esposito said playing against the Soviet Union was always special to him.
“Patty was a driving force behind our trying to do something with Hockey Canada to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summit Series [in 2022],” Esposito said. “That 1972 team meant so much to him.”
It is alleged Stapleton retrieved the puck out of the net after Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal in Game 8. Stapleton was usually coy when asked whether or not he had what would be one of the most famed souvenirs in hockey history.
“They say I have it. We’ll keep that one going for a while,” Stapleton told the Toronto Sun in 2012.
After scoring an NHL career-high 10 goals in 1972-73 and helping the Black Hawks return to the Stanley Cup Final in 1973, when they lost to the Canadiens for the second time in three seasons, Stapleton left the Black Hawks and joined the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association as player-coach. After the Cougars folded following the 1974-75 season, Stapleton played two seasons with Indianapolis and one with Cincinnati of the WHA before retiring in 1978.
After retiring, Stapleton lived in Strathroy, Ontario, and was on the advisory board of the Junior B Strathroy Rockets. His son, Mike Stapleton, played the first five of his 14 NHL seasons with the Blackhawks before he retired in 2001.
NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs contributed to, and information from The Canadian Press was used in this report