Stapleton turned professional with Sault Ste. Marie in 1960, and at the end of the season he was drafted by the Boston Bruins. "The Bruins had a terrible team then," he says. "I never played very well. I really began to wonder if I was too small to be in the NHL. After all, if I couldn't play for the Bruins, who could I play for?" Hoping that Stapleton would grow a few inches, Boston sent him to Portland of the Western League for two years. "I learned how to play the game out there," he says. "I had always tried to muscle people and, of course, it never worked. In Portland I learned how to finesse them, how to box them away from the goal without getting run over." In his second season with Portland, Stapleton scored 29 goals and 57 assists and was voted the league's top defenseman.
As a reward Boston recalled him, but immediately traded him to Toronto, which owned his contract for less than 24 hours before the Black Hawks reclaimed him in the player draft. Stapleton started the 1965-66 season with Chicago's farm club in St. Louis, played there for a few weeks and then was recalled by the Hawks when they were besieged by injuries. Stapleton stayed on as a regular and played so well that he was voted to the league's All-Star team. Then he was named captain of the Black Hawks, a move Bobby Hull applauded by saying, "He is our inspiration."
Stapleton was paying his price in stitches. Doctors have sewn more than 600 of them into his face. "When you're little," Stapleton says resignedly, "you get a lot of sticks in your face that other players get in their chest." Pucks, too. One night Stapleton almost lost his right eye when a Bernie Geoffrion slap shot thudded above it. In February of 1970 he crashed into a goalpost in Chicago and tore up his knee. "The doctors told me I probably would never play again," he says.
The Black Hawks obviously thought Stapleton was finished, too, and refused to offer him a raise with his new contract. "I guess they figured I was a cripple and not worth any more," he says. For the first time in his career he worried about the future. He owned the cattle farm in Adelaide, but that alone would not support a family of seven. Then he had an idea....
"C'mon," Stapleton said to his 9-year-old son Tommy, "let's go home." Practice was over, and Stapleton was ready to go to work. He manipulated his new Thunderbird onto the expressway and drove to his five-bedroom Dutch Colonial house in Naperville, a quiet community some 30 miles straight west of The Loop. He politely declined the lunch his wife Jackie had prepared, then drove quickly to his office.
Stapleton, stung to action by his Black Hawk salary tussle, is the co-founder and president of Icearena Inc., a company that builds arenas for the low, low price of $600,000. Waiting for Stapleton when he walked into Icearena's five-room suite in the Lisle Professional Center were his partner, Dick Glassford, a secretary named Joyce and a bookkeeper named Carol.
"Any calls today, Joyce?" he asked.
"Yes, this friend of yours needs tickets for Sunday's game," she said.
He started to read his mail. "I should be able to go to that thing in Naperville," he told Joyce.
"It's a parade," she said. "They say you're supposed to be in charge of something. Here it is. You'll be the guest athlete and lead the Junior Olympians in a drill."