Garrett Stafford finds harmony in his life by balancing hockey with his many off-ice interests.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
If you think most hockey players are alike, you obviously haven’t met Garrett Stafford.
First off, the Griffins defenseman is not Canadian, nor, for that matter, does he hail from any snowy station where playing hockey is practically a rite of passage.
He hails from Southern California – West Hollywood, just the other side of UCLA, to be precise. A land where skates were something you found on the bottom of a board, not your feet, where BMX racing and surfing were more popular pursuits than pushing a puck up and down a sheet of ice.
Stafford still remembers the day it dawned on him that playing hockey might be a cool way to make a living.
He was seven years old when his mother took him and his sister to a public skating session at a rink in nearby Culver City. The Los Angeles Kings were practicing and Stafford’s eyes grew as big as faceoff dots.
“I turned to my mom and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he recalled. “Obviously every seven-year-old wants to do 10,000 things, but at that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was going to play hockey.”
Not so fast, said his mother Patricia, a flight attendant who knew the importance of having your feet on the ground. “She made me learn how to skate with roller skates in the driveway for about three months before she would buy me real ones,” he said.
Stafford was a bit ahead of his time. Consider that it was five years before The Mighty Ducks, the movie, appeared in theaters, and another year before The Mighty Ducks, the team, became a reality.
Playing hockey became his passion, which made him a bit of an anomaly in an area where Puck is a character in a Shakespeare play rather than the centerpiece in an athletic drama.
“For me to play on a really good team, which I did, my parents had to sacrifice. There were a lot of early mornings spent driving,” he said. “People came from all over. Parents would drive an hour just to bring their kids to practice.”
Hockey was certainly not the most popular sport at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school which buses in students from around the city and counts Leonardo DiCaprio, Patricia Arquette and Shane West as alums.
A good student in math and science, Stafford hoped hockey could earn him a free ride to a college education. At 16, he moved to Des Moines to attend school and play in the United States Hockey League in order to get noticed.
“It was like reverse culture shock,” he said. “L.A. is such a melting pot, but Des Moines is so different. All the kids were white. It was like something off a TV show.”
But he liked the people and, most of all, the hockey, and he eventually got what he wanted – a scholarship to play at the University of New Hampshire.
He had been recruited by several other top schools but chose UNH because he liked the coaching staff and thought it seemed like a successful program. He was right, as back-to-back appearances in the Frozen Four during his final two seasons proved.
Following college, Stafford signed a free agent contract with San Jose, joining the Sharks’ farm club in Cleveland, where he was an AHL All-Star and All-Rookie Team selection in 2003-04.
Stafford, who had NHL tryouts with Los Angeles and Dallas, spent four seasons in the San Jose organization prior to signing with Detroit last summer. It meant he was never far from his Southern California home, at least in spirit.
“It’ll always be home to me,” he said. “I’m thankful for growing up in L.A. for so many reasons. I love everything about it, from the weather to the food. It’s not the stereotype people think.
“Everybody has an idea in their head of what L.A. is all about, especially people who have never been there, and it’s usually way off. It’s just like anywhere. I’ve never been to Paris but I have an idea of what it’s like and it’s probably completely wrong.
“All I know is, I love L.A.”
Stafford doesn’t go around singing Randy Newman, but he is an avowed music junkie. He has a 500 gig hard drive filled with thousands of songs. “Growing up, most of my friends were either musicians or athletes, so I’ve spent a lot of time in studios.”
It’s a place in which he hopes to eventually spend even more time. “I’m planning to go to recording school next summer,” he said, explaining his interest in becoming a sound engineer.
“It’s tough because it’s a nine-month program and I don’t have nine months to give, so I’ll have to piece it together. But it’s something I’m serious about.”
So serious, in fact, that Stafford began studying the piano last summer. “I have a good friend, Nathan Blumenfeld-James, who plays in a band called Julie and who can play almost any instrument he wants. He’s obviously coached me a little, but when I’m away from L.A., I’m on my own.”
Stafford professes to like all kinds of music, except most country and techno. “I love piano-based melodies and rhythm, definitely mellow, a lot of hip-hop but not what you call rap,” he said. “Ultimately I’d like to branch out and make my own beats.”
He sees parallels between music and sports. Achieving success at the highest levels is a long shot, at best.
“You think professional athletics is hard. Being a professional musician is probably even harder. There are so many people trying to do it and so many amazing musicians who never really make it. I’m not planning to do it for any monetary benefit.”
As if hockey and music weren’t enough to keep him busy, Stafford is also a budding entrepreneur.
Last summer he became a consultant and partner in a friend’s automobile company. Ghost Motorsports is a one-stop facility that specializes in European high-performance vehicles.
“It’s primarily aftermarket business. We’re designing our first line of rims,” Stafford said. “My dad works on these really powerful rendering programs, so he’s helping us on the technical side.”
His father, James Stafford, is a noted architect, having once been singled out by Domus, a prestigious Italian magazine focusing on design, as one of 10 brightest minds at the forefront of California architecture.
Like his father, Garrett has a definite creative streak.
“My mind is always racing, but when I’m at the rink it’s easy to turn everything else off – it’s not even an issue,” he said. “When I’m at work, it’s about work.”
For Stafford, work lately has been good. He made his NHL debut in late February after injuries sidelined the Red Wings’ top four defensemen.
“When you look at the Wings, there are so many legends, so much history. It’s such an honor to wear that jersey,” he said.
Stafford averaged 6:45 of ice time in his two games with Detroit before he returned to Grand Rapids. As he does when he is in the recording studio with his musical buddies, Stafford just tried to absorb everything he could.
“It’s all about being a student of the game, watching other players and taking what you can from them,” he said. “It’s the same with anything you do, if you want to be the best.”
While Stafford may not totally embody the California stereotype – he offers a curious combination of ambition and casualness – he admits that he is probably more conscious of his health because of his upbringing.
Last summer he signed a deal to promote Full Performance Fitness, a manufacturer of nutritional supplements. He endorses the company’s First Step for Energy liquid vitamins.
“I have been using their product for a couple of years and got to know the owner pretty well, so it’s been a really good relationship,” said Stafford, who majored in exercise science in college, with a minor in nutrition.
In addition to liquid multivitamins, Stafford takes liquid glucosamine and chondroitin to keep himself loose and limber, as well as a new liquid B-12.
“I completely noticed a difference in how I felt every day and my energy level,” he said. “That’s why it was really easy for me to endorse the product, because I definitely couldn’t endorse something I didn’t believe in.”
As part of his contract, he must submit to regular drug testing to demonstrate his commitment to clean, safe workouts and his willingness to pursue peak physical performance and results without illegal substances.
Asked about the baseball controversy concerning steroids and human growth hormone, Stafford offers a split opinion. “You’d have to be pretty ignorant to believe that no one was doing it,” he says, adding that he also thinks it’s a bit of a non-issue.
“In baseball, I just think it’s been part of the game. There have been so many guys doing it, that I don’t think it really makes a difference (to the records).”
Besides, you reap what you sow, Stafford contends. He can’t fathom that baseball players were blind to what was going into their bodies.
“I think they knew exactly what they were doing.”