The continued emergence of Ian White as perhaps the best all-around Maple Leaf defenseman evokes memories of another “under-sized” defender who had a lengthy and successful NHL career.
I’m thinking of Pat Stapleton, the long-time Chicago Blackhawk who forged an excellent career as an NHL defenseman, despite his relative lack of size. At 5 foot 8 inches, Stapleton was considered ‘short’ in his era, just as White, at 5 foot 10, is so considered today.
Stapleton first played in the NHL with the Bruins in the early 60s, but really started to make a name for himself with Chicago during the 1965-’66 season. He went on to play 8 seasons with the Hawks, including appearances in the Cup finals in 1971 and 1973. Like many others, Stapleton signed a lucrative contract in the new World Hockey Association (with the Chicago Cougars) before the 1973-’74 season. He played the last five years of his pro career in that loop.
(I recall watching Stapleton, with the Cougars, play against the Toronto Toros at the old Varsity Arena in Toronto. It was probably during the 1973-’74 season, and I just remember thinking “Why is this guy in this league”? He was a tremendous player in a league that was trying to establish itself, but the WHA drew some big names, including Derek Sanderson and former Leafs Bernie Parent, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood and Jim Dorey. But the biggest name of all was Stapleton’s former Chicago teammate Bobby Hull, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets and helped drive salaries up across the board. The money offered by the new league was so good for so many NHL’ers that they simply couldn’t turn it down.)
Stapleton had developed into such an effective player during his Chicago years that he was selected for - and played a big part with - Team Canada in the famous Summit Series against the Russians 1972. Stapleton could skate and move the puck. He played particularly well with Bill White, who at 6 feet 2 was more of a classic defensive defenseman. White had been buried in the minors before expansion, but joined the Hawks from the LA Kings during the 1969-’70 season and teamed effectively with Stapleton for several years.
All this said, you can see in Ian White a versatility similar to that displayed by Stapleton, a trait that makes him very valuable to a coach. To me, White has been a noticeable player since he joined the Leafs for the first time during the 2005-’06 season. Though he sat out the first 10 or so games last season, he has since earned Ron Wilson’s trust, obviously, and is counted on to play significant minutes. It’s hard not to like his competitiveness, and he has the skating ability and tools- like Stapleton- to be a difference maker for years.