Like the sacredMontreal Forum and seismic Chicago Stadium and other storied hockey barns thatexist only in the scrapbooks of memory, Staal Gardens is history. Henry Staaldismantled the rink nearly two years ago, and now only the detritus ofdreams--a dozen or so muck-caked pucks and fragments of wooden boards in thematted grass--serve as testament to a playground that measured 50 by 100 feetbut imposed no parameters on the imagination. When they gazed out of theirkitchen window, Henry and Linda Staal could see their four sons on the rink,impervious to the lung-searing Ontario winter, but now the mystical spot ishidden by a row of spruces that has grown through the years.
So, of course,have the boys.
In the long lineof backyard rinks that have contributed to Canadian puck mythology--WalterGretzky, of course, flooded one for Wayne--the Staals' miniature marvel withforest-green boards and a string of lights that Henry built for Eric, Marc,Jordan and Jared was carved into perhaps the most unusual setting. The SunshineSod Farm, 500 acres a few miles south of Thunder Bay, has provided the familywith its livelihood. It may also prove the seeding ground of an NHLdynasty.
For the SunshineSod Farm boys, the grass has never been greener. Has any hockey family had abetter year?
October 30, 2006
•Eric, a 6'4"center who turns 22 on Sunday, scored 100 points during the regular season andan NHL-leading 28 more in the playoffs as the Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006Stanley Cup--making him big-time as well as big. Eric, whose size and on-icepresence is such that he seems to loom over a game, had eight points inCarolina's first nine games this season.
•Marc, 19, arangy defenseman, was the top defenseman in the World Junior Hockeychampionship last January, blanketing snipers such as Evgeni Malkin (now withPittsburgh) and Phil Kessel (Boston). Although the Rangers returned him to theSudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League after the preseason lastmonth--with players becoming unrestricted free agents earlier under the newCBA, most teams reflexively send junior-eligible prospects back forseasoning--New York coach Tom Renney praised him as "a poised, confidentplayer with a long fuse, a guy who can rattle some cages, sure, but who gaugessituations."
•Jordan, 18, aslick center, got drafted second overall by the Penguins in June, fresh offhelping the Peterborough Petes to a Memorial Cup berth. He won a roster spot inthe preseason, sneaking on as the fourth-line center to become the NHL'syoungest player, and scored his first goal on Oct. 12 on a shorthanded rushafter breaking up a Jaromir Jagr pass against the Rangers. It was no surprisethat Jordan swiped the puck and made a nifty deke, but it has been surprisingthat the rookie, who also had two goals in a win last Saturday, has beenentrusted with penalty killing, a job usually reserved for savvy veteranforwards. "He's been put in important situations for a younger guy, andhe's handled them great," says teammate Sidney Crosby. "His learningcurve is fast."
•Jared, 16, hasjoined Marc in Sudbury after being the 11th player chosen in the OHL draft.Although he has yet to score a goal while competing against mostly 18- and19-year-olds, he has played creditably in seven minutes a game on Sudbury'sfourth line. The lofty draft position was a mild reach for a right winger who,despite a strong stride and good puckhandling skills, is not a prodigy, butStaal is no longer just a family name. Like Sutter, it is a trusted hockeybrand.
Comparisons ofthe Staals to the NHL's famous Sutter brothers are natural though, for themoment, speculative. You can't take a combined 81 NHL seasons spanning aquarter century for the six hockey-playing Sutters--Brian, Darryl, Duane, Brentand the twins, Rich and Ron--and juxtapose it with two-plus for the Staalfamily. Still ... large families. Farming backgrounds. (The Sutters grew up ona cattle ranch in Viking, Alberta.) Solid people. Solid skills, although theStaal brothers, long and lean, have more flair. The Staals have already tiedthe Sutters in 100-point NHL seasons: one.
"I playedagainst pretty much all the Sutters, and they were character guys," saysWolves coach Mike Foligno. "Same with the Staals.... You have to credit thevalues of bringing up a family the old way. I think the comparisons areappropriate."
"It's soearly," Henry said in August of the Sutter comparisons as his Ford pickuprattled over fields of Kentucky bluegrass on his sod farm. "If all fourbecome established NHL players, and I'm sitting home with four games on (thesatellite) one night, then maybe I'll think, Wow. But for now the emotions forus are the same as they were when Eric was 13, Marc 11, Jordan 10 and Jared 8.You're happy when they do well, disappointed for them when their team loses orthey have a bad game. It's exactly the same, except now they're making a livingat it."
Certainly hockeypays better than farming, at least when their father was doling out the cash.Henry taught each of his sons how to drive a tractor, at two miles per hour,and to roll sod when they were six or seven. Pay began at $5 an hour and roseby a dollar each year. Eventually the boys would train for two hours in themorning, then put in a day of carrying or laying sod. Now they're generallyexcused from farmwork, but Jared and Jordan, Mr. High-First-Rounder, helped outthis summer. "These kids identify with the family's common good,"Renney says, "which bodes well for the NHL teams that have them."
Beyond learning afamily business started by Henry's father, John, the life lesson of hard workcoupled with tangible reward was instilled early. "Not that sod farming'sbad," Jordan said. "But playing hockey, something you love, is a lotbetter than working in [100°] weather every day in the summer."
Henry and Lindadidn't raise fools. Just unassuming sons. They tore up the basement by shootingpucks off the insulation, but there was no over-the-top rambunctiousness. Thelast time anyone can remember a full-scale outbreak of sibling rivalry was 10years ago when Jordan scored a goal and Marc took exception by slugging him.Each seems as delighted by his brothers' accomplishments as by his own.
Eric and Jordanhad a face-off against each other on Oct. 14, when they met professionally forthe first time, a draw in the Pittsburgh zone. As they hunched over before thepuck was dropped, the linesman said, "We're going to slow this down sosomebody can take pictures." Eric then challenged his brother, "This isfor a Gatorade." Eric won the draw, and when the brothers met in a corridorof Mellon Arena after the 5--1 Carolina win--Eric scored 2:24 into thematch--Jordan forked over a sports drink. The Staals are not big on what theycall "newspaper quotes" or, for that matter, "quotes" of anykind. When Eric, who'd had a playoff point streak of 15 games last spring buthad gone seven games without a goal, was interrogated about his slump afterGame 3 of the final against the Edmonton Oilers, he ladled out platitudes in amonotone. He let two goals and three assists in Games 4 and 5 answer moreeloquently.
When the brothersfind themselves in uncomfortable situations, they grow so quiet you might guessthey were raised by the deer that amble through Sunshine Sod Farm. Theirhumility seems as matter-of-fact as their stickhandling. "We taught themthat they weren't better than anyone else," Linda said. "Just thateveryone has different gifts, and their gift maybe is hockey."
A sign at theThunder Bay airport congratulates Eric on winning the Stanley Cup. This is,indisputably, cool. Maybe not as cool as the homage to Thunder Bay's mostfamous son, Paul Shaffer (David Letterman's bandleader has a street named forhim), but a worthy tribute in a town that ditched Canada to pull for Carolinain the finals.
Thunder Bay isnot a city as much as a fiefdom of 120,000 at the head of Lake Superior,connected to the wider world in almost random ways. If you make a left out ofSunshine Sod Farm, then a quick right up an unpaved road to Highway 61, youhave a few options. You can drive west eight hours to Winnipeg, east sevenhours to Sault Ste. Marie, south 3 1/2 hours across the border to Duluth or sixto Minneapolis. In other words, you do not leave Thunder Bay on a whim. This isa self-contained world with a university, a brawny port, a famous landformation known as the Sleeping Giant, road signs that warn about moose atnight, and hockey, a game--an ethos--that connects the disparate dots at the48th Parallel.
"It's amazinghow many people play here," said Henry, a forward with a big heart andmediocre hands at local Lakehead University in the late '70s and early '80s."Even guys my age still play scrub hockey."
"Here you allgrow up with the same dream, playing in a Game 7 and winning the StanleyCup," Eric said. "And I did it."
Staal's breakoutseason delighted Thunder Bay, but the arrival of the Cup on Aug. 10 captivatedit. There is something about that hardware that turns everyone into a kid on abackyard rink, including the 5,000 who showed up for a celebration downtown.Eric had won the Cup before, of course, at Staal Gardens, but the enormity ofcapturing it beyond the confines of the farm did not fully register until a fewnights after Game 7, at the NHL awards ceremony in Vancouver, when the StanleyCup was set up in a VIP lounge. "Other [players] were taking pictures of itbut not touching it, of course," Eric said. "But I was right in there,grabbing it, like I won this. I can do this." The Cup didn't changeEric--"He's still just my brother," Jared said--but it has set thestandard for the younger Staals, who are less envious than proud.
For the next twodecades or more, barring misfortune, a Staal brother will be grappling for it.The reign could last until 2030 if Jared continues to improve. As he kicked atsome old pucks on the remains of Staal Gardens, Henry mentioned how well hisyoungest son had played at an under-17 camp in the late spring. "What I sawthen was a fear of failure," Henry said. "I don't think he wants to beknown as the guy who didn't get out of Thunder Bay."
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Selecting Jared so high was a mild reach. But Staal isno longer just a family name. Like Sutter, it is a TRUSTED HOCKEY BRAND.
When cold weather came, the Staals (from left: Marc, Eric, Jordan and Jared)got off their muddy turf and onto their backyard rink.
Eric (12) is a star; Jordan (11) is thriving as the NHL's youngest player;Jared (27) is undaunted by older teens; and Marc may be Broadwaybound.
The rugged Sutters (clockwise from top left: Ron, Rich, Brent, Darryl, Brianand Duane) were a great fit for the NHL.