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Veteran Stajan integral in guiding young Flames

Matt Stajan has solidified his role with Calgary as a leader on and off the ice

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH / Calgary Flames

CALGARY, AB -- When Matt Stajan was in his nappies -- professionally speaking, of course -- he had any number of Matt Stajans to draw upon for an example.

"I was so fortunate," he reflects. "My first year, the veterans we had in Toronto … it was a different league then, a lot of older players.

"But I roomed with Joe Nieuwendyk. Gary Roberts was on the team. Mats Sundin was always the same person, whether we won three in a row or lost three in a row. Same work every day.

"You watch those guys.

"Them talking is obviously important, letting us know what we're doing right or wrong, but when you actually watch the way they handle themselves in different situations …

"So I made sure I watched them. Because you learn so much."

Nearing his 33rd birthday, with his 900th career regular-season skirmish only 28 game-opening puck-drops away, Stajan has certainly undergone his share of difficult times over his coming-on six years here in the west.

Out of those challenges, though, he's quietly managed to weave himself into the fabric of this community, as well as of this franchise.

And right now, he's playing some of the best hockey of his career here.

While these newfangled Calgary Flames -- new coach, new systems, new personnel in fly-or-die positions -- were struggling to sort themselves out only a week or so ago, Stajan has served as a settling influence, a reference point, anchoring the team's most consistent line.

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"Do the right thing, play the right way," incoming coach Glen Gulutazan kept preaching with the single-minded fervour of an evangelist preacher in a Chautauqua tent, even as Calgary's record skidded to 1-4-1," "and we can work our way out of this."

For verification, he'd find himself pointing over yonder at No. 18.

And, lo and behold, they did.

Through osmosis, a shifting landscape and his ability to adapt -- going from clean-up to lead-off in the batting order among centres -- Matt Stajan has become more, much more, than merely the answer to the trivia question 'Name the Last-Man-Standing from the Dion Phaneuf trade of Jan. 31st, 2010?'

What does he mean, precisely, to the ongoing maturation process of these Romper Room Flames?

Why, just ask captain Mark Giordano, the undisputed competitive fulcrum of the whole enterprise, who trusts Stajan's judgment, seeks out his input, in matters of both church and state.

"Whenever," says Giordano, "I have questions about things or thinking about something, he's one of the two or three guys I lean on.

"An off-ice issue, an on-ice issue, he's one of the first guys I go and talk to about it.

"He's got good advice. A great teammate.

"I think Staj is a guy who flies under the radar a lot.

"Our young guys can take a lot from his positioning. You watch him in our D-zone. He's never in rush, which is the way to play centre in the D-zone.

"He always finds those right spots. I think our young centres can learn a lot from him."

Ask Micheal Ferland, one of the millennials keen to tap into the professionalism of the man; who see a survivor who has carved out a long career.

"I've played with Staj since I first came up," says the rambunctious winger, ripping off an elbow pad post-practice Saturday. "He took me under his wing. I've watched the way he keeps things simple. So good on the blue(line)s. I kinda know where he's going to be now. And I think in the past year and a bit we've developed a good chemistry on the ice.

"He's played in this league a long time, and you can see why.

"He's given me a lot of advice. And I'd be crazy not to listen. Obviously everyone wants to play with guys like Johnny and Mony. But being on a line with a guy like Staj maybe suits a guy like me better.

"He's never in your ear, never in your head. If you mess up, he'll come tell you. But he lets you play your game. Just cool and collected."

Ask Gulutzan, who's deposited more responsibility on Stajan's doorstep and been richly rewarded for entrusting such faith.

"He adds to our culture," praises the coach. "He's one of our leaders in that locker room. I knew that coming in.

"He's an inspired player right now. I feel he's one of those guys who's really into the process.

"We've had lots of contributions from lots of guys but Staj is one of those veteran guys, good presence in the locker room, really even keel, good guy to talk to, been in the league for a long time.

"It really helps the younger players."

Those early years in the epicentre of the hockey media world undoubtedly steeled Stajan to what lay before him.

"I was kinda thrown into a situation where I had to be one of the leaders because we went younger in Toronto," he recalls. "I tried to accept that role and go with it.

"So I dealt with a lot. I think Toronto helped mould me for the tough times here. I try and tell the guys 'It's an experience. Life's an experience. Whether it's good times or tough times, take it all in.'

"That's the approach I've always tried to have, tried to help our young guys with. Our coaches are like that this year and I think it's refreshing for everybody."

In nine games this season, Stajan has accounted for four assists and is a healthy plus-4. Perhaps when he first came over from the Leafs as a for a high-profile player, people perceived his success/failure exclusively with stats of that nature.

Not anymore.

"A lot of times," says Giordano, "people get lost in numbers. It's that way with a lot of players. I think Brouw (Troy Brouwer), same thing. He's not going to score you 40-50 goals but he's just as valuable as those guys become of all the other things he brings.

"I think Staj is the same.

"Our third/fourth line -- whatever you want to call it -- you want them to get out there and have good energy shifts. They've done that. They've also generated a lot on the offensive side, as well. Created a lot of chances.

"Those guys are easy to play with. Those guys are so valuable."

Nearing 33, having experienced the ups and downs, his niche clearly carved out in this organization, Matt Stajan.

"He's gotta be up around 900 games played, right?" asks Giordano.

When informed that, yes, Stajan was closing in on that milestone, the captain merely nods.

"Well, there's a reason for that."

His professionalism, his example, has helped the good ship Calgary Flames pull itself off the jagged rocks.

But now, just because that ship seems to have found its way back onto open seas, doesn't mean Matt Stajan's seafaring acumen is less vital.

Anything but.

He'll continue to be counted upon to help keep the bearings straight and the ship in relatively calm waters as it attempts to dock safely on playoff shore.

"The approach this year is keep building, that it's a process," says Stajan. "You guys have probably heard a lot of that.

"At the end of the day, there are going to be bumps in the road, tough times. Personally, with your own play, and with the team's.

"Sometimes you've got to take a step back and search out the positives. We've had success this last week, now we've got to make sure we don't get ahead of ourselves, don't get complacent.

"This is where you've really got to dig in and push."

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