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Ahead of the milestone, Matt Stajan reflects on his career and his most memorable moments

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Arguably the oddest part was the hairdo. Or at the least the remnants of the hairdo.

Matt Stajan simply doesn't shape up as a mohawk kinda guy.

Picturing Matt Stajan with a mohawk is sort of like boy-next-door '50s teen heartthrob Pat Boone releasing his hard-rock album: In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.

"Yeah,'' recalls Stajan, somewhat sheepishly. "I had a mohawk. Junior teams do - or at least did - crazy things like that at playoff time.

"Wasn't so smart, those mohawks, since we were out in the first round. I'd actually shaved it but you could still see the outline when I was called up to the Leafs.

"Yes, a mohawk.

"Not my proudest moment.''

The Calgary Flames locker room is emptying out on this particular morning, a game-day morning. Filing out, all of the players focused on forward, looking ahead to a 7:30 puck drop and a visit by Jumbo Joe, Little Joe, Logan Couture and the rest of the San Jose Sharks.

Stajan, alone, is being asked to cast his glance backwards. To scroll back to the beginning, to April 5th, 2003.

After all, Game No. 900 arrives tonight in Edmonton.

The 19-year-old second round draft pick of back then had gone through a hectic few days, shuttling from a first round, seven-game ouster with the Ontario Hockey League's Belleville Bulls to a one-off acclimatization in St. John's, Toronto Maple Leafs' top farm club, closing out its season.

"After the game that night,'' he says, "we all went out, the way teams do.

"I had no inkling I'd be called up. I mean, I'd already been called up, right?

"So I slept in.

"I wake up, there's a message on the phone from Mike Penny, assistant GM in Toronto at the time. I'm playing in Toronto that night.

"So I'm scrambling to catch a flight, St. John's to Toronto. I actually didn't land until 4:45 for a 7 o'clock game. My sister picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to the ACC.

"I got right the room and sat down next to Ed Belfour. He wasn't playing. They'd already clinched a playoff spot so a lot of guys weren't playing. Which is probably why I got the chance.

"A crazy day.

"A blur."

The Leafs of that era could best be described as a decidedly grizzled lot. Mats Sundin wore the captain's C. Darcy Tucker was there. As were Bryan McCabe, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi, Alex Mogilny, Owen Nolan, Phil Housley.

Pat Quinn, the leathery ol' Irishman, was coach.

The cast party for the original Cocoon movie might've boasted a younger demographic.

"It all happened so fast,'' recalls Stajan. "Which was good because this was the team I'd watched growing up as a kid.

"I didn't have time to get nervous or scared or really process what was going on."

And as fate would decree …

Second shift of his first NHL game: neutral zone faceoff. Loses the draw, clean. But Ottawa Senators' Chris Phillips, trying to go D to D, whiffs on his pass and …

"I went through right through the middle on a breakaway, untouched, and stuck it five-hole. My first NHL goal.

"That was Game 1."

Eight hundred and ninety-nine have followed. Over a career dotted with peaks and valleys, professional change and personal tragedy, longevity, durability, consistency and dependability can be identified as Stajan hallmarks.

"I learned so much in Toronto. I think at the start I was the youngest guy by four or five years. Joe Nieuwendyk was my first roommate. Gary Roberts, Tie Domi, Bryan McCabe, all those guys were so great to me."

The faces, the places, the moments, the friendships. They're all a part and parcel of the experience.

"When I look where I am at this point in my career, I'm very proud at how I've been able to adapt to different roles on teams.

"I came into the league, I was on the fourth line. Back then, you came in, you were on the fourth line. And you work your way up from there. I worked on my defensive game, I learned to penalty kill.

"Then when Mats Sundin and that core group moved on, I got to play first, second line, some power play minutes. Then I came to Calgary and it went in reverse.

"You find your niche, adapt to your situation. You need to bring what the team needs, what the team is asking of you.

"Sometimes it's not what you want, it's not fun, but you adjust."

Life, as he's acknowledged before, often, was not fun for a while following the blockbuster trade that brought him to Calgary on Jan. 31st, 2010.

"My first two years here,'' he repeats, "were … really hard.

"Not just the change to your life that comes with a move - which people on the outside underestimate - but the expectations. You sign a big deal" - four years, $14 million on March 1, 2010 - "and when the team doesn't get off to a good start, people start pointing fingers.

"Even if you don't think you're playing that bad, if you're not producing points and you're the guy making more money, you get blamed.

"That's fine. Through your career there are times when people praise you undeservedly and times when people rip you undeservedly.

"So be yourself. Approach it the same way every single day.

"Be professional.

"And seven years later, I'm still here."

Asked to sort through a personal catalogue of 900 pages and identify one memory among the many is sheer torture for most players.

Not Stajan.

March 28th, 2014. Stajan and his wife Katie were, as everyone in Calgary knows, grieving over the death of their infant son, Emerson, early that month.

"It wasn't my first game back. That one really emotional. The support of my teammates, of the fans was overwhelming that night.

"So I was back, but I still didn't feel myself on the ice. I was having a hard time.

"Then we were up in Edmonton to play.

"And that game, right off the bat I had this weird feeling. Something just … happened. It felt like the puck was following me around. I got a penalty shot in the second period - I've only had two or three in my career."

After scoring, Stajan 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. So that, for sure, is the one game out of 900 that I remember. That I'll always remember.

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

Video: Stajan's memorable penalty shot vs. the Oilers

When Elliott arrived to join the family a year later, an entire community celebrated with the Stajans.

"When you're young and in the NHL, you tend to think all that matters is hockey. Then you have a family. Then maybe you go through a lot as a family, like we did.

"Now I approach every day differently. I get up and kiss my baby, Elliott. I kiss my wife, who's been my rock through everything.

"I pat our dog.

"You come home from practice, they're there. Good day, bad day, they're there.

"At the end of the day, they're what matters most."

Eight hundred and ninety-nine regular-season games ago, Stajan, with the outline of a regrettable mohawk still visible, began the journey.

"I still have a picture with the puck from that first goal in my first game'' he says. "My linemates were Owen Nolan and Gary Roberts.

"On defence, Phil Housley and Bryan McCabe.

"I think back to that game, to those times … it's been a while. But as you get older, your perspective improves. And I've enjoyed every minute. The good times and the bad."

The voice recorder clicks off. The locker room is by now deserted.

"That's a lot of data to sort through,'' offers Stajan, starting to amble off into the back room, the inner sanctum.

Yes, well, 900 is a lot of games.

"Hopefully,'' he says over a departing shoulder, "we can do this again next year, for 1,000."

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