A dream that began 23 years ago on a backyard skating rink in Forest Park came true on Feb. 25. Timothy “Buster” Stapleton was called up to join the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That day, Buster was with his agent watching the Leafs on TV. One of Toronto’s players went down with an injury. The agent’s phone rang. It was Toronto’s general manager calling from the press box – inviting Buster to make the quantum leap to the NHL.

The next day, Buster flew to New York with his new teammates to play the Islanders. The game ended in a shootout, with Buster taking the final shot for Toronto. Buster simply did what he’s been doing at every level of hockey – he scored!

After the game-winning shot, Buster’s phone was flooded with text messages and voice mails – many from his Forest Park friends and one from his tearful older sister. The next game, Buster scored again.

The Maple Leafs then brought him back down to Earth by returning him to the minor league Toronto Marlies. Buster was disappointed, but understood he was needed for the Marlies’ playoff push.

Buster started skating at the age of 3. His father would build an ice rink behind their house at 1018 Hannah. Buster admired the dedication that took, with his dad spraying a hose at 3 a.m. to resurface the rink.

When he wasn’t skating with a stick, Buster played soccer for his school, St. Bernardine’s, and played baseball in Forest Park’s Little League. He was surrounded by a solid group of Forest Park friends. They remained close with Buster, even as he chased the puck halfway around the world.

He began playing organized hockey in Oak Park before skating for the Fenwick Friars. In his junior year, Buster moved up to the Chicago Chill traveling team, taking on squads in Michigan and Canada.

Buster then skated for two years with the Green Bay Gamblers, where his scoring ability caught the eye of college scouts. He received a free ride to the University of Minnesota at Duluth, where lead the team in scoring.

After graduating with a degree in criminal justice, his agent found him a roster spot in Finland. So, Buster went off to Helsinki for two years, where he was among the league’s leading scorers. Buster then received an offer to play in the American Hockey League, where he starred at center.

Now that he’s had a taste of success at the top, Buster is confident he can play consistently in the NHL. Another six or eight years of professional hockey would make his dream complete.

Still, he misses Forest Park and returns here every Fourth of July. He is touched by the loyalty of his old neighborhood friends. Without the support of family and friends, Buster’s dream may have ended right there in the backyard.