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FLAMES EXTRA - TEAM GUY

As Stajan closes in on milestone mark of 1,000 games, former mates remember respectful rookie who has always approached game the right way

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

There have been, down through the years, less intimidating workplaces for an up-and-comer to infiltrate.

"Oh, back then you could safely describe us as 'grizzled', all right,'' confesses Bryan McCabe, from his office at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

"Walk into that locker-room and it was like an elephant burial ground.

"Eddie (Belfour). Robs. Nieuwy. Me. Brian Leetch. Owen Nolan. Mats (Sundin).

"I mean, we were … old.

"Can't imagine what a kid like Staj must've thought.

"Nice for us seniors to have some youth in there, though."

Fourteen years later, only one player from that gnarly 2003-2004 Toronto Maple Leafs' roster remains to carry the torch. The man now approaching cameo-keepsake Game No. 1,000, just five tilts shy of the reaching that lofty plateau:

Matt Stajan.

"Young Staj,'' reckons McCabe, "wasn't much different from the Staj of today, I'd imagine. A little more hair …

"Just a great kid. Really, really likeable. Seamlessly fit into our older locker-room.

"Old-school guy. Played hard … plays hard. Makes everyone feel like part of the group. Eager to fit in. No ego, no arrogance to Staj, whatsoever, when he first came up. And hasn't been, his whole career.

"Just puts his hard-hat on, clocks in, does whatever it takes to be part of the team, whether that's on first line or the fourth line. He's etched out a solid career for himself as a shutdown/PK guy.

"Great teammate. Obviously that's why he's stuck around so long."

As a second-round (53rd overall) pick from the Belleville Bulls, Stajan made a one-game appearance (sporting a dyed mohawk haircut, of all things) in the final regular-season game of the previous season, getting NHL goal No. 1 out of the way in a big hurry in the process.

During his first complete NHL campaign, a Flames icon of yesteryear - Joe Nieuwendyk -was handed the role of tutor by Leafs' coach Pat Quinn, becoming the 19-year-old's show-him-the-ropes roomie on the road.

"Matt was a high-end prospect for the Leafs back then,'' recalls Niewuendyk, these days working for the Carolina Hurricanes in a pro scout/advisor capacity. "But he came on board and they put him with me, the old guy. His first year, as it turns out, was my only year in Toronto.

"I remember his being very respectful. Of the game, the veteran guys, of the organization, the jersey, the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"That's the way he's carried himself his whole career.

"I remember his wife (then girlfriend, Katie) calling me Mr. Nieuwendyk. Boy, did that make me feel old. But that's just the way they were.

 "As a roommate? Well, he wasn't hitting the mini-bar, and much like Joel Otto didn't give me the remote-control for the nine years I was his roommate on the road, Matt was very willing to hand me control of the remote, too.

"Like I said, respectful. And that's not a bad way to be, is it?"

Not at all.

"I don't think he spoke for a year and a half, unless spoken to,'' jabs the pugnacious Darcy Tucker. "I guess we scared him. We had some old bones in that room, for sure.

"Matty was the type of kid who was very sensitive. And there's good and bad in that. Sometimes you feel you have to be maybe over-respectful but he became a leader pretty quickly.

"Play long enough and you see a lot of guys who are drill-busters in practice. He wasn't one of them. He did exactly what the coaches wanted. He always - always - had the good of the team at heart.

"You look at his career, he hasn't moved around, jumped from team to team, contract to contract. He's had longevity in a couple of organizations that are - let's face it - not that easy to play in. When you're talking Toronto and Calgary, the fan bases expect good things each and every night."

A willingness to adjust from the more glamorous life of an offensive contributor to a checking centreman, dealing with fewer minutes, has helped lengthen Stajan's stay.

"Some guys don't figure that out and then wonder why they don't last long,'' says Nieuwendyk. "But that's a big, big part of why we're coming up on 1,000 games for Matt - which is still hard for me to believe, by the way.

"He's adapted.

"Guy Carbonneau, remember, was a high-scoring junior player but he had to reinvent himself when he reached the NHL, and became a great defensive player.

"Matt had to figure that out, too. For him, I think it became evident fairly early on. He was smart enough to realize he had to be a responsible player, a good teammate … those two ingredients alone mean you're going to get jobs along the way.

"I think he deserves credit for only playing on two NHL teams, in a day and age when guys move around quite a bit. That shows the value that he brings to a team, to a locker-room.

"He might be a bottom-six guy, but he's a smart player. High hockey IQ. Good penalty killer.

"Those guys are going to last a long time. And he has."

 

As a mate, not only a teammate, Stajan comes up aces, emphasizes McCabe.

"He's a diehard Steelers' fan," says the Florida Panthers' director of player personnel, "and I'm a diehard Jets' fan.

"I remember we had like a three- or four-day break during the schedule, my wife was going home for Thanksgiving, so me, Matt, Hal Gill and Andrew Raycroft went to see the Steelers play the Jets.

"He wore his custom-made Steelers' nerf helmet and jersey to the game. And he looked … let me just repeat that I've never seen such a diehard Steelers' fan.

"Went to overtime. Freezing cold. If I remember correctly, the Jets kicked a field-goal in OT.

"One of my best Matt Stajan memories. Great day."

Both Nieuwendyk (1,257) and McCabe (1,135) toppled the millenium mark during lengthy careers.

Tucker fell just short, stalling at 947.

"That's why my kids keep asking me now: 'How come we didn't get to 1,000 games so I could stand on the ice with the silver stick, dad?'" he sighs.

"To do it, you need to be in good situations, but you also need to stay healthy. Matty's taken care of himself, trains properly, eats smart, does things that guys - me being one of them - who didn't look after their bodies properly in the summertime had come back to bite them at the end.

"That speaks volumes of how structured he is, how dedicated to the sport."

As No. 1,000 approaches, those long-ago Leafs, the old fellers inhabiting that elephant graveyard Bryan McCabe spoke of, couldn't be more tickled for the long-ago wide-eyed rookie.

"I'd say the word we'd use - Nieuwy, Bryan, myself, all of us - is proud,'' says Tucker. "We're proud of a kid who came into our locker-room bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, didn't know what was up next, stuck around, did the work and lasted 1,000 games."

Hear-hear, echoes McCabe.

"You don't see a lot of role-players, per se, get to 1,000 games anymore,'' he points out. "Today's is a young man's game; guys with less money on their contracts are taking over those roles.

"So it shows you the type of person he is; the type of character he has. Good people stay in this business. He's a good friend, great person, awesome teammate.

"I love Staj. He and his wife Katie are the salt of the earth. We're still in touch to this day. I'll keep our friendship near and dear to my heart, always.

"A thousand games … that's fantastic. A big accomplishment.

"Congratulations, buddy."

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