Tim Stapleton's last NHL stop was with Winnipeg (above) in 2011. Since then, he's played exclusively in Europe. | Photo provided

If Hollywood made a movie about the hockey career of Tim “Buster” Stapleton, audiences might consider it hokey. How could a kid who learned to skate on a homemade rink in the backyard of 1018 Hannah Ave., put together a 10-year career in the NHL and Europe? 

Stapleton, who is listed at 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, was not blessed with size.  But he has an uncanny ability to find the back of the net. 

Today, Stapleton is far from the flat landscape of Forest Park. He is playing in the mountains of Olten, Switzerland, about 45 minutes from Zurich. He lives there with Marissa Foradas and their two children, Boomer and Sienna. 

At 35, Stapleton is an elder statesman on the team but hopes to continue his unlikely career for a few more years.

It all started on that backyard rink that his father made for him when he was 3. He owes a lot to his parents, Christopher and Bernadine, who supported him in those early days. Hockey is an expensive sport, but they believed in their sons, Buster and his brother, Buddy, who played hockey in college. 

“It was crazy,” Stapleton recalled, “My goal was to play pro hockey, but I never dreamed of the NHL. I wasn’t a very big kid.” 

He was good enough, though, to play two years for Fenwick High School. He spent his junior and senior years playing for the Chicago Chill, a traveling team out of Bensenville. After that stint, Stapleton signed with the Green Bay Gamblers, of the U.S. Hockey League.

The teenage Stapleton carried his suitcase and hockey gear to the homes of host families, who furnished him with room and board for two years. Stapleton enjoyed the experience because “the Gamblers and Packers were the only teams in town.” 

Plus, his play earned him a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota at Duluth.  When he wasn’t playing college hockey, Stapleton was working on a degree in criminology. 

“I had a pretty good college career,” he said. “But there was no interest from any American teams. I was never drafted by the NHL.” 

He was deemed too short for the league. That didn’t discourage Stapleton, whose agent had connections in Europe. Stapleton traveled to Finland for a tryout. 

Many Americans didn’t make the cut, because European teams were only allowed to sign four “imports” from other countries. He not only signed with the team, he finished second in the league in playoff scoring. 

“During my second year, Finland was a hotbed for future NHL goalies,” he said. 

Stapleton had the challenge of scoring on future stars, like Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi. Thanks to his offensive skills, Stapleton said, “I caught the eye of the Toronto Maple Leafs.” 

On Feb. 26, 2009, Stapleton scored his first NHL goal – a shootout game-winner for the Maple Leafs — during a four-game call-up. He spent most of the season playing for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Marlies. 

After he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, Stapleton played for another AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. He had his most successful season there, scoring 30 goals. After one year with the Wolves, Stapleton was called up to the parent team, and he has the distinction of scoring the last goal in Thrasher’s history. It was April 10, 2011 and the team was moving to Canada to become the Winnipeg Jets. 

Stapleton skated with the Jets the entire season and doubled his NHL career totals. 

“I was offered another year,” he said, “but the lockout happened.” 

Play was suspended until January. 

“So, I signed in Russia, where the real money is,” Stapleton said.

NHL players could make four-times as much money playing in Russia. 

“I made the all-star team my first year,” Stapleton said. “And the [Florida] Panthers offered me a contract. But I was 30 years old, with no wife and kids and knew I could make a lot more money.”

He also received advice from a longtime friend, former Blackhawks star Chris Chelios. 

“He advised me to stay in Russia, rather than return to the NHL,” Stapleton said.

Of all his overseas destinations, Russia was the greatest challenge. It had been easy adjusting to Finland. 

“Most Scandinavians speak English,” Stapleton said, “The biggest problem was language in other countries. I had to learn Russian,” he said.

Stapleton first played for a team in Minsk, Belarus. 

“The coaches and players didn’t speak English,” he said. “If they yelled at me, I didn’t know what they were saying.” 

It was also difficult to understand Russian culture. 

“In elevators, Russians didn’t say a word,” Stapleton said. “Then, when the doors opened, it would be mayhem with manners.”

After Minsk, Stapleton played for a team in Kazan, about 500 miles east of Moscow. 

“It was a 12-hour time change,” Stapleton said.

In this remote outpost, he found a friendly face in former Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan. Stapleton played in Russia for four years before leaving to sign with a Swiss club. 

Then it was onto Sweden for a year, before returning to Moscow for the 2016 season. Stapleton attributes his longevity to his versatility. 

“I’ve played forward my whole career, but I’ve also played center and wing for entire seasons,” he said. “There’s an advantage to being able to play several positions.” 

Though he was a prolific scorer in his early days, he’s now content to be a playmaker.

On April 21, 2017, Stapleton signed to play in the Swiss League. 

“It’s one of the best countries for raising a family,” he said. “It’s beautiful. It has the best views. The people are friendly. It’s a privilege to live here.” 

During the summer, Stapleton and his family enjoy their home in New Buffalo, Michigan, which includes a boat for cruising the lake. 

Last summer, he finally completed his criminology degree, working as a security guard at a factory in Broadview. He wasn’t planning a career in criminology, but a photo of Stapleton sitting at the security desk gave his Forest Park buddies more ammunition for making fun of him. 

“My good friends from Forest Park bring me down to Earth,” he said. “If anyone calls me from Forest Park, I have time to talk. I’m proud to be from Forest Park. It’s a hard-working little suburb. Forest Park shaped me 100 percent.”

Stapleton may have been shaped here, but he knows this could be his last season, though he wants to stay in the game. 

“I’d like to work in player development. I’d like to connect with current players,” Stapleton said. “With everything I’ve been through, I have valuable experience to share with younger players. I had to go through a lot of adversity. Being called up and sent down puts a lot of strain on your mind. You can start doubting yourself.”

There’s no self-doubt in Stapleton, and he feels comfortable financially and physically. He’s ready to face new challenges, after his playing career ends. 

He recently offered his analysis of the current Blackhawks. 

“They still have their core,” he stated. “I’m a firm believer they won’t dominate the regular season but when the playoffs start, I wouldn’t count them out.” 

Just as no hockey team should ever count out a scrappy forward from Forest Park.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.