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Jordan Staal Embodies What It Means to Be a Hurricane

Brind'Amour: 'He epitomizes everything that you're preaching, which is why we're moving in the right direction'

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / Hurricanes.com

In September 2018, Rod Brind'Amour opened his first training camp as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Just as he did when he was named captain prior to the fabled 2005-06 season, the first-year head coach sought to revitalize the Canes' culture and to raise the expectation level for the team.

Brind'Amour challenged his club to become a C5 Hurricane - that is, a Category 5 Hurricane, the strongest and most ferocious of them all. Brind'Amour spelled out the tenets of what it means to be a C5 Hurricane, five "C" words that now line the threshold of the team's weight room at PNC Arena: Compete, Care, Consistent, Culture, Championship.

Jordan Staal, who is set to play in his 1,000th career National Hockey League game, 569 of which have been with the Canes, epitomizes each of those attributes.

"This is what we want to be, and it has to start with your top dog, your leader," Brind'Amour said. "He epitomizes everything that you're preaching, which is why we're moving in the right direction. It's easy to talk this stuff, but you have to have the people to back it up, and he does."


Compete

It began with an innocent thought, a simple idea.

Playing in the NHL is a dream come true. Playing with your brother on the same team? What are even the chances?

"That stuff wasn't really on our radar until we got here, and then we start thinking about the possibilities," Staal said. "It starts to grow, and you start to think how cool that would be."

The Pittsburgh Penguins approached Staal, their second overall draft pick from 2006, about a 10-year, $60 million contract extension in the summer of 2012.

"I was like, 'Yeah, let's do it.' I think all Eric had to say was, 'If you sign that, we probably won't ever play together,'" Jordan recalled. "It was a no-brainer. I loved Pittsburgh and the guys there, but family is family. Being able to play with your brother was a dream come true."

It was the week of the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. It was also the week of Staal's wedding in Thunder Bay, Ontario. News broke that Staal had rejected the Penguins' long-term offer. On Friday, June 22, before the first round of the draft began, Canes General Manager Jim Rutherford chatted with Penguins GM Ray Shero. The two traded proposals before settling on a trade that was then announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on stage before the eighth overall pick.

"Jim did a great job with that," said Canes President and General Manager Don Waddell, who at the time was working as a pro scout for Pittsburgh. "I always say that we make a lot of deals hoping they work out. There are some deals you make that you know are going to work. This is one that when Jim made the move here, he knew it was going to work out."

Meanwhile in Thunder Bay, Staal's agent Paul Krepelka, who joined the Canes' front office in 2018 as the vice president of hockey operations, broke the news to his client during his wedding reception with many a Penguin in attendance.

"Krepelka turns to me and goes, 'Emmet, I've got to go tell him he's been traded,'" Canes television analyst Tripp Tracy recalled. "Jordan and Heather have just been married, and they're going table to table to thank everybody, and he's got to go tell him, 'Hey, listen, you just got dealt.' I'll always remember that."

"Right in the middle of appetizers and entrees, the whole room kind of went quiet. A lot of murmurs and whispering. Paul came up and told me I was traded to Carolina," Staal said. "It was a hard moment for a while there. There were some tears in talking to some guys, but as the night went on, it turned out to be an awesome night. It was way better that they were there rather than mid-summer, maybe a couple texts or calls. It was actually great to have a few drinks, hang out with them and really have a great night together."

A little more than a week later, the Canes inked Staal to that same 10-year, $60 million extension, a long-term bet on one of the game's best, young power forwards, an acquisition that changed the dynamic of the roster for years to come.

"It's a huge, huge deal to get a player who I think is a franchise player. You want to keep these guys forever. The reason is they help build your culture," Brind'Amour said. "You build around these players, and they're hard to find. When you get them, you want to keep them. I think it's great that we were able to get him at a young age, and he had already had an experience of winning and being around people that won."

"I knew with the type of person and player he is that he would only benefit the Hurricanes," Eric said. "For us to be able to spend those years together was phenomenal. We had good times and tough times and being able to share it together was special."

Almost 10 years later, Staal remains a critical asset down the middle for the Canes. He's a premier shutdown player. He wins critical faceoffs and has for years. He's a horse on the ice and a "brick house" in the weight room, according to Jaccob Slavin. He's strong. He's big. He's competitive. He's a player that opponents dread and teammates love.

"He's an honest player who plays the game hard. He's competitive. There aren't many people in the league who wouldn't rank him as one of the hardest players to play against. When you come into this building, you know that if you're going against Jordan, you're in for it," Canes video coach Chris Huffine said. "He's a big man. He's physical. He's got skill. He can play the game any way you want to play it. I don't think his game has ever really changed."

And he's grown into a quality leader.

"The way we want to portray ourselves is based on the captain. He's everything we want to be," Brind'Amour said. "We want to do it right, we want to be hard-working, we want to be respectful, we want to show up every day and do our job. That's how he is. Why wouldn't you want to be like that?"


Care

Jordan is the third of four hockey-playing brothers (Eric, Marc and Jared) from Thunder Bay. Their upbringing on a family sod farm with parents Henry and Linda informed the honest, hard-working people they grew into. They cultivated their raw hockey skills into successful professional careers - Jared played two games with the Canes at the end of the 2012-13 season - and did so with the utmost grace and humility.

Jordan cares for the game. Eric said his brother is probably too hard on himself, but that's part of what makes him who he is on and off the ice.

"He's got such a care and character to him. Naturally, he has leadership abilities and tendencies. Guys are drawn to someone like that," Eric said. "His willingness to sacrifice whatever he needs to do in order to have team success is what makes him such a great leader."

Jordan cares for his teammates, setting an example for what leadership is and the type of player and person a captain can be.

"I was the shy guy who didn't speak much English, but he was always super nice to me. He took me kind of under his wings. As the years have gone by, he's been more and more of a close friend to me," Sebastian Aho said. "Me being able to watch him very closely on how he does things, I'm very fortunate I've been able to do that because it's helped my career, as well. His presence, how he is in the locker room - he's always the same guy. He treats everyone very fairly. He's the ultimate leader for our team and a great human being."

Jordan cares for his family and friends, maybe even above all else. The game, after all, isn't forever.

"He's always kind of been the same, and I'm not saying that in a bad way. He's just always had that character to him. He's definitely taken me under his wing my whole career so far. He's helped me develop into the professional I am today," Slavin said. "He has a good head on his shoulders about the game, caring for the game, caring for his teammates and wanting to win, but also at the end of the day still just being a man. The player that he is obviously is really, really good, but the person that he is is even better."


Consistent

As Staal began to rack up points in 2021 - he had 15 points (7g, 8a) in his first 12 games played - the resounding question was, "What is different about Staal this season?"

The answer was a common refrain: There's nothing different about him. He's playing the same way he always has.

Ask someone who knows him better than maybe anyone else.

"Jordo plays the game the right way. He's always been that way," Eric said. "He's committed to being strong defensively, he's going to compete his butt off every single shift, you know he's going to show up in moments you need him."

There's truth in that, of course. Playing 1,000 games in the best hockey league in the world isn't an accident. A consistent level of play, regardless of point production, is a key ingredient to longevity, and Staal hasn't overhauled who he is or how he plays, even after a tough offensive outing like the 2019-20 season might have been.

"I don't think he ever changes. He just grinds," Aho said. "His level of commitment to the game plan - it's actually how the Canes are and how we want to play. It's literally him. It's every night. He doesn't take a night off. That's awesome to see what kind of pro he is."

That's "the definition of consistency," Jordan Martinook said. That's leadership. That's a captain.

However, there's also something to be said about Staal's evolution as a player and a professional. The NHL in 2021 isn't what the NHL was in 2006, when a baby-faced Staal, not even a month beyond his 18th birthday, made his debut against the Philadelphia Flyers.

To maintain his consistent performance, Staal has had to evolve with the game, and the offensive success he's seeing this season can in part be attributed to the offseason work he did in Raleigh with Slavin, Vincent Trocheck and strength and conditioning coach Bill Burniston.

The program emphasized high-velocity training, which re-invigorated Staal's explosiveness on his skates. Look back at his overtime-winning goal against Nashville on March 9. He picked up a loose puck along the far boards from the top of the right circle and, using his speed and strength, created separation from Eeli Tolvanen as he raced down the ice to fire a wrist shot past Pekka Rinne.

Video: NSH@CAR: Staal's second goal wins it in overtime

The program also helped Staal fine tune many of the small details of his game. In part due to holes in the lineup and in part because he has the skillset, so why not, Staal has been featured on the first power-play unit for much of the season. It's a unique opportunity, one he's relishing and finding success in, while showcasing the upside of his offseason training. Take, for instance, this power-play goal that Aho scored in Dallas on Feb. 11. Staal's primary assist was a thing of beauty, an in-tight hands play where he no-looked a drop pass to Aho.

Video: CAR@DAL: Aho buries Staal's no-look set-up for PPG

The program was also competitive, as Staal, Slavin and Trocheck went head-to-head-to-head in their training.

"It was the littlest, silliest things we were competing in. If we were .1 second faster than the other person, we'd be giving it to them, 'C'mon, let's go!' and all that stuff. It was just fun," Slavin said. "Just to have that atmosphere of compete and just being around a couple guys on the team was a lot of fun. I think that definitely helps, but it's not the reason why he's hot this year. The reason he's hot this year is because he's a good player."

Of course, as pucks go in the net and points begin to roll in, the confidence soars. That can make all the difference in the world.

"He's not playing any different. There might be little, tiny things here and there, but pucks are going in this year," Justin Williams said. "He was always getting opportunities and creating opportunities for his linemates. I loved playing with him. You put the puck in the corner, and he was going to win the battle eight times out of 10. Now they're just going in, and when he sees them going in, he gets a little bit more confident. That can be a funny thing sometimes."


Culture

Staal first wore a letter on his sweater in the NHL in December 2008, his third season in the league, as the Penguins rotated an "A" while Sergei Gonchar was sidelined with an injury. Coming into the 2010-11 season, Staal was named one of the Penguins' three alternate captains.

He's worn a letter ever since.

Staal served as an alternate captain in his first five seasons with the Canes, and in the 2017-18 season, he shared the captaincy with Justin Faulk. It was an unenviable position but one he deftly navigated with poise, all while dealing with unimaginable heartache away from the rink.

"The fact that he persevered silently in the most impressive manner through those bumps in the road strikes me," Tracy said. "Jordan is such a wonderful human being."

"It was a great opportunity. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but still being able to wear the 'C' was something special, and to do it with a great friend and lead a team together was pretty cool. There was some stuff off the ice, as well, at the time that I was going through that made those years hard. That's life. You learn from the ups and downs," Staal said. "What you want to show is your day-to-day character, who you are as a person and your values. I think I showed that as best I could through those hard years and the good times, too. I've learned that's what leadership is about, and I continue to strive to get better and better at it."

Staal and Faulk served as alternate captains with Williams captaining the team in the 2018-19 season, a leadership decision that was a no-brainer for Brind'Amour, a first-year head coach.

"I definitely soaked in as much as I could from him in the way he carried himself," Staal said. "His ability to push guys I think was what I took out of it the most. He had an ability to push buttons and get the most out of guys and have that accountability in the room that we desperately needed."

After Williams stepped away from the game prior to the 2019-20 season (and then hung the skates up for good in 2020), Brind'Amour had another easy leadership decision to make. Staal was going to be captain - not a captain, not one of the captains, but the captain.

"He's comfortable now. I think Willy helped a lot in being a leader and him watching how he did it. I give Willy a lot of credit for that. Jordo's grown into it," Brind'Amour said. "The fact that he's putting up points, that helps him feel like he's more able to do his job, but that's irrelevant for me. He's already a good leader for the other stuff he does."

Just as Staal has evolved as a player, he's also evolved as a leader in watching and learning from those that came before him.

"I saw a lot of growth, especially last year. Jordan has always been more of a quiet, lead-by-example leader, and that's fine. He still is that, but I feel like he's gotten a lot more comfortable with himself and his role on this team," Williams said. "I'm not quite sure a few years ago he was comfortable enough in his own skin to say, 'I'm one of the leaders on this team. Guys can look to me for advice, and I'm going to show them the way.' He owns it now. He's more comfortable saying that and being that guy and challenging people if they need to be challenged. It's been really cool to see."

This is Staal's team now.

"You're always trying to be yourself and make sure that your day-to-day and character values are evident, so guys see what you're all about," Staal said. "I've also learned a lot from Willy and Roddy and Eric and a lot of guys on how to make sure our team is ready. I'm a small part of that, and I've grown into that a little bit better in making sure I'm ready and the guys around me are at their best, too."


Championship

After sweeping his brother, Eric, and the Canes in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final, Jordan and the Penguins met the Detroit Red Wings in a rematch of the previous year's Stanley Cup Final, which Detroit won in six games.

The Red Wings took the first two games at home. The Pens fought back on home ice to win Game 3. In Game 4, Staal scored a shorthanded goal in the second period to tie the game and help propel Pittsburgh to a 4-2 win. After Detroit claimed a 5-0 shutout win at home in Game 5, they were a win away from capturing back-to-back championships. Staal opened the scoring in the second period in Game 6, and the Pens won, 2-1. It was back to Detroit for Game 7, and the Penguins grinded out another 2-1 win to capture the Stanley Cup.

"It's what you dream of as a kid to be the ultimate champion of a sport and to be able to do it with your friends and share it with your family," Staal said. "You look at pictures, but those memories are always ingrained in your mind."

Staal lifted hockey's ultimate prize over his head at just 20 years old.

"It's kind of driving me nuts now. When you win it that early, you just think you're going to do it again and again and again. It's just not that easy," he said. "It's something I definitely want to do again and have been chasing ever since."

Staal made the playoffs with the Penguins in each of his first six seasons in the NHL, totaling 36 points (23g, 13a) in 73 postseason games.

He then spent six playoff-less seasons with the Canes. In Jordan's fourth season, Eric was dealt at the trade deadline.

"It was hard. I watched my old team win a couple Cups, too. Those thoughts rolled through my mind of, 'I could have still been there' and all those things. And now Eric's gone," Jordan reflected. "We knew it wasn't going to last forever. It's a business. We really enjoyed our time together. Would we have liked it to last longer and win more games? Yeah, but life is not always easy. I definitely thought about my future here, but Heather and I loved it here. The people, the fans, the organization, it was all really good to me, and I wanted to continue to try to build a team and a winning culture. That's why I'm still here."

It all changed in the second half of the 2018-19 season, when the Canes surged up the standings and clinched their first playoff berth in a decade. It had been a long time coming.

"I vividly remember looking at Faulker and being like, 'We finally did it.' We had obviously been there for a long time and been through a lot. It was a big moment. A lot of stress just trying to get in. It's not easy to do," Staal said. "It was far too long for these fans not to see some playoff hockey, and we were just excited to be there. Then we just started playing hockey. Once we were in, it was kind of a win-win moment. We were happy to be there, but we knew we had a good team, as well. We kind of ran with that. It was kind of like my first year in the NHL with that feeling. We went out and played, had some fun and found a way to win some games."

Staal played a critical role in some of the Canes' eight wins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, too. Facing elimination against Washington in Game 6, Staal muscled in a rebound at the top of the crease to score the go-ahead goal early in the third period.

Video: WSH@CAR, Gm6: Staal fends off defense to net rebound

"You can always bank on him. You just know he delivers," Aho said. "Every single game, every practice, he grinds. A great, great leader for us."

With the Canes trailing by a goal early in the third period in a decisive Game 7 in Washington, Staal cruised down the right wing and beat Braden Holtby with a far-side wrist shot, eerily reminiscent of Eric's shot that beat Martin Brodeur for the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Canes' first-round series against New Jersey in 2009.

Video: CAR@WSH, Gm7: Staal pots snap shot to tie it in 3rd

"Playing against the defending Stanley Cup champs, and in Game 7s, you always want to be at your best. I loved the resilience of our team being down and just kind of sticking with it," Jordan said. "I was glad to be a part of that comeback and score a big goal for our group. We kind of took the game over after that, I thought."

Just two nights later, Staal netted the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 1 against the New York Islanders.

Video: CAR@NYI, Gm1: Staal fires home the overtime winner

"Really, it felt like a dream rolling into that next series," Staal said. "I didn't sleep much after that Game 7. I don't remember much of that goal. I remember grinding that game out. It was a tight game like it always is against the Islanders."

These big-game triumphs aren't surprising to anyone around Staal. That's the type of player he is, whether it's Game 1 of the Second Round, Game 7 of the First Round or Game 11 in the regular season.

"He plays that way every night," Brind'Amour said. "That's the consistency factor."

"He's been there and done it before. He's won a Cup. He knows how important each moment is, especially in the playoffs," Martinook said. "His game is as playoff-ready as you can get. He's going to come up big because that's how he plays all year."

The Canes are now poised to make their third consecutive appearance in the postseason, and they're tracking to have their most successful regular season in franchise history. Staal has been a key part of that, both in his leadership and in his offensive contributions.

"It makes you realize how difficult it is, how tough this league is and what it takes on a day-to-day basis to be successful," Eric said. "Through the tough times, if you continue to grind away, work and be committed to team success, it eventually can turn. It's so fun to see now. That starts with Jordan and the leadership there."

"It's something I won't ever take for granted being on a really good team with good friends that know how to battle, work for each other and find ways to win," Jordan said. "It makes those tough years wash away pretty quick and these times that much sweeter. We want to try to be like this as long as we can and for as long as I can be here."


Now in his third year as head coach, Brind'Amour didn't stray from the message on the first day of training camp in January. The expectation is to be the best, he told his team, and you get there by fighting for precious inches and striving to achieve the five pillars of a C5 Hurricane.

Compete. Care. Consistent. Culture. Championship.

"When Rod took over, he created a culture. That doesn't happen overnight, and it can't happen with just your coach. You have to have your players buy into it, and we have someone like Jordan who is 100 percent behind what Rod is trying to do," Waddell said. "Jordan has been unbelievable. Whatever it takes to get it done."

Whatever it takes, a familiar rallying cry of a championship team. That team was led by a captain who competed and cared and was consistent and helped change the culture, which led to a championship.

Fifteen years later, the man with the "C" on his chest embodies that same archetype.

"I always tell my boys to watch Jordan. If you want to emulate somebody, watch Jordan and how he plays," Huffine said. "I appreciate him and his effort. We're fortunate enough to have a guy who's been around that long and cares the way he cares. He's become a Carolina Hurricane."

And not just a Hurricane, but exactly what it means to be one.

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