Gary Stefan was a high-scoring centreman, a member of two gold medal-winning Great Britain teams, who founded Slough Jets and co-founded the revived British National League. At various times he was also a coach, a rink manager and a TV commentator. His numerous fans dubbed him ‘Mr Hockey’.
The Stefan family grew up in Brantford, Ontario with the Gretzkys as their neighbours, and the brothers played hockey in each other’s backyard rinks. As a ten-year old, ‘Stef’ spent a season as netminder for a team run by the Great One’s father, Walter Gretzky, before giving way to his younger brother, Greg, who went on to a successful NHL career with Detroit Red Wings.
Gary missed out on a pro career in North America because “I was too small at 17, I shot up later,” he explained. Instead, he made his name in this country, first in London’s hockey stronghold of Streatham, with the Redskins of Alec Goldstone and John Rost, then across the capital in Slough where, as player, coach and manager, he created a brand new fanbase for the sport.
He first came to this country in 1980 after receiving an invite from Richmond Flyers and arranging to work in his aunt’s nearby sports goods shop. He made an immediate impact on the team, ending the season as the top scorer in the Inter-City League and being voted onto the All-Star ‘A’ team at centre.
The next year, the first of his five with the Redskins, he repeated as top scorer as the south London side won the Grand Slam of English National League, English League South, cup and play-offs. His 165 points garnered him the Air Canada Player of the Year award plus the centre spot again on both leagues’ All-Star ‘A’ teams. Over five campaigns and 197 games on the High Road, he rampaged through opposing defences, accumulating 670 points (436 goals) with 644 penalty minutes.
When a new rink opened across London in Slough in 1986, Stef shocked the Streatham faithful by taking on the challenge of putting their hockey team together as well as playing. Taking three Redskins with him and adding high scoring Canadian Richard Boprey, the Jets finished a creditable fifth in Division One of the Heineken League.
With Joe, Gary’s youngest brother, joining in 1991-92, the team slowly worked their way up the division table, winning two titles but failing to follow up with success in the promotion play-offs. In 1994-95, after nine long seasons, they overcame their eleven Division One rivals (with teams from Guildford to Dumfries), and went on to clinch the coveted promotion to the Premier Division.
Slough lasted only one season in the top flight but in his final three years on the ice he helped them to two further trophies, the Benson & Hedges Plate in 1997-98 and a fourth league title, the British National League, in 1998-99. During the latter season, he scored his 1,000th point for the Jets on 31 January at the Guildford Spectrum and decided to retire at the end of the term, when he would be turning 40. “It was never about the money,” he said of his time playing in Britain. “Without the people I have met here, I would never have stuck around.”
In all his official club games over 19 seasons, he broke the 2,000 mark in points and the 1,000 barrier in goals, his final career record reading 752 games, 2,013 points, 1,181 goals, 832 assists and 1,999 penalty minutes.
Capped 17 times for Great Britain in three successive World Championships, he scored 22 points (12 goals) and twice helped them to win promotion, in 1990 and 1992.
Among his off-ice achievements he played a key role in setting up the 1990s version of the British National League to cater for the teams omitted from the professional Superleague. He also spent time on the board of the governing body, Ice Hockey UK, and as a colour commentator for Sky Sports’ coverage of the Superleague.
Gary Lawrence Stefan was born in Brantford, Ontario on 23 June 1959. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.