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Flames veteran Matt Stajan to play his 1,000th game tonight against Ducks

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

With his pop off retrieving a ballcap for TV purposes, three-year-old Elliot Stajan - brow furrowed - regarded the semi-circle of media mongrels lurking nearby with a healthy suspicion.

"Hey, pal," dad Matt hollered over, "how about you do the interviews today?"

Sorry, Elliot. No substitutes on this morning, of all mornings.

Not on the morning of Game No. 1,000. Father's Day, nearly three months early.

"To tell you the truth, I have a little bit of nerves before every game,'' confessed Matt Stajan, roughly eight hours before puck drop on his millennium milestone regular-season NHL clash.

"My whole career.

"I think that's a good thing. It's a big game for our hockey club.

"But, yeah, I'm proud.

"The support I've had over the years from so many people has been tremendous. All of us are very fortunate to be in the industry we're in, playing a sport we love.

"I'm approaching it like any other game but at the same time it's a big milestone game."

From April 5, 2003, to today.

"Pretty special game for him, obviously,'' lauded Flames coach Glen Gulutzan during his morning availability. "We did a little thing for him this morning in the locker-room.

"It means a lot. He's such a character human being. A guy, like I've said earlier, who's done whatever we've asked of him to do here. In the beginning, he even sat out games. Then taking on a role as a penalty killer and fourth-line guy.

"But the leadership role for us, trying to move things forward in that locker-room, has been really important to our hockey club.

"Now, all season and moving forward, he's left an impression."

Calgary's ties to Stajan are woven deeper, more personally, than that between a hockey player and a populace, of course. A city grieved with he and wife Katie when their first child, Emerson, died shortly following birth in early March of 2014. In turn, that same city rejoiced a year later when Elliot was born.

When pressed to pinpoint one among all the moments of a career a year ago, he chose his penalty-shot goal of March 28, at Rexall Place, only weeks after Emerson's passing.

After tucking the puck in, he pointed to the heavens in tribute to his son.

"To get that goal, my first after everything we'd been through as a family, was such a special moment,'' Stajan reminisced.

"So that, for sure, is the one game …that I'll always remember.

"I think (Curtis) Glencross had a hat-trick. I got four points. One of those nights everything went your way.

"I needed something like that at that moment. It helped me turn a corner, get back into hockey. The feeling you have to have.

"Like a sign, you know. An omen.

"Some people believe in that kind of stuff. Some people don't.

"I do."

Which is only part of the reason why people here have taken such a shine to him since arriving in the blockbuster Dion Phaneuf trade of Jan. 31, 2010.

Talk to those who've played alongside No. 18, both here and in Toronto, and the overriding theme is that he does things, at the rink and away from it, the right way.

Which isn't always easy.

And is far from the norm.

"I'm just trying to go about my business,'' said Stajan. "When you start cheating or start looking for things to come easy … it doesn't work that way in this world.

"When you work hard - no matter what it is you do - stick with it through the tough times. That's just the way I was raised. I've never changed my mindset.

"When you're in the NHL for five, six years, you still don't take it for granted because that's what you've dreamed of.

"I've always tried to remind myself of that.

"I came into the league in Toronto knowing you could make a difference being a Toronto Maple Leaf. When I came to Calgary, right away we wanted to be part of the community.

"It (charitable endeavour) is something we've never taken for granted. If anything, we want to make the most of it. Everybody can make a difference in their own way but we're in a situation where we can really impact people's lives."

So much has happened - personally, professionally - since April 5, 2003, when the 19-year-old Stajan was an 82nd-game call-up by the Leafs.

He arrived at the Air Canada Center that long-ago, far away night sporting a Mohawk he'd whipped in Belleville for what he and the Bulls hoped would be a long OHL playoff push.

"I don't think I could grow hair up top there anymore,'' joked Stajan on Wednesday morning. "If I could, I would.

"But that was a pretty bad mohawk. But I did shave my head before my first game. Shaved my head then, now I've got no hair.

"So it's come full circle."

He scored a goal that night. Even elicited a smile from the leathery ol' Irishman, Leafs coach Pat Quinn.

There'll doubtless be smiles all around tonight, with Stajan's parents, family members and friends flying in from Ontario to help him celebrate the milestone.

"Why has he played so long? It's simple. He's such a great person off the ice and such a leader on it,'' replied captain Mark Giordano in tribute. "Maybe not the flashiest guy out there but he can play anywhere you ask. He's so reliable.

"Whatever role he's given, he embraces it. You can't teach hockey IQ, hockey smarts. He just has them.

"With the way the league is headed, getting younger and younger all the time, 1,000 games is not going to happen as often, I don't think, anymore.

"So to get there … a huge accomplishment.

"We're all happy for him.

"Enjoy it.

"Nobody's more deserving.

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