In his mind’s eye, Lee Stempniak can see the snow piled up so high that he didn’t so much shovel it off the driveway as bore a hole through it.
“It was like a little, narrow tunnel to get to the street,” he said, smiling.
Growing up in West Seneca, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, could be challenging, especially when the weather outside was frightful. But Stempniak, a forward for the Carolina Hurricanes, is proud of his upbringing, proud of the sacrifices his parents, Larry and Carla, made so he and his brother Jay could play hockey.
Stempniak, 33, describes it as a blue-collar family and himself as a blue-collar player. Larry Stempniak, 63, worked in a factory printing books that later was sold to a Canadian company, Quebecor, which eventually closed the factory down. Carla still works at the post office, sorting mail overnight, Lee said.
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“When it comes to hockey they were the two biggest influences in my life, just in terms of hard work and commitment,” Lee Stempniak said.
They also demanded Lee attend college. He spent four years at Dartmouth, getting an Ivy League education while becoming a two-time hockey All-America for the Big Green.
Jay Stempniak, two years younger, played hockey for Franklin Pierce University, a Division III program, Lee said.
“From the time I was four until I left for college I played hockey at the same rink, the town rink five minutes from my house,” Lee Stempniak said. “I played for the travel team. From there junior hockey for the Buffalo Lightning, now the Buffalo Junior Sabres. It was great. I loved it.”
His coach for eight years was Matt English, the father of his best friend, Matt. Everything was family-centric in West Seneca, it seemed.
“I think Buffalo gets a bad rap because of the weather,” Stempniak said. “When the steel plants closed it didn’t really develop the waterfront but they’re doing a lot more of that now. I have a soft spot for it. There are a lot of people there who work very hard and don’t expect a lot, and I want to pass those values on to my children.”
Stempniak doesn’t get back home as much as he’d like, he said. That can happen when you play for 10 NHL teams in 12 seasons, moving your own family from city to city.
But Stempniak has a road game Thursday against the Sabres. While saying he didn’t attend a lot of Sabres games – he was too busy playing – at the old Memorial Auditorium, he always enjoys facing his hometown team and enjoyed it Saturday when his shootout goal helped the Canes win 2-1 at PNC Arena.
“My aunt once got me tickets at ’The Aud’ for Christmas, five rows up from the ice,” Stempniak said. “Coolest Christmas gift ever.”
Stempniak’s favorite Sabres player was former forward Dave Andreychuk, simply because that was his Dad’s favorite. In his rookie year with the St. Louis Blues, Stempniak played against Andreychuk, then asked for a favor.
“I got him to sign a stick for my Dad, which my Dad really liked,” Stempniak said.
Stempniak signed a two-year, free-agent contract with the Canes in July, then had one of the team’s best starts. Playing on a line with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner, he had four goals and two assists in the first five games.
Stempniak then went 22 games without a goal, getting good offensive chances but not finding the net. That drought ended with a goal against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 10, and he now has two goals, an assist and the shootout goal in the past four games while playing with center Teuvo Teravainen and winger Sebastian Aho.
Canes center Jay McClement, who broke into the NHL with Stempniak with the Blues in 2005-06, said he has changed little through the years.
“He just puts his head down and works hard,” McClement said. “That’s why he’s been around the league as long as he has. He has found an identity as a guy who does it the right way and can score goals. Life has changed for both of us but nothing has changed, if you think about it.”
Stempniak is still the blue-collar guy from West Seneca, and proud of it.
Carolina Hurricanes at Buffalo Sabres
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.