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For Henry Staal, empty-rink syndrome

by Dan Rosen

The house is finally quiet. The boys have all moved out. And, that rink, the enviable 50-by-100 smooth ice surface in the yard that those very same boys made famous, is gone, too, dismantled by one of this continent’s most revered hockey dads.

“It’s definitely a strange adjustment,” Henry Staal said.

That’s because instead of schlepping from rink to rink throughout central Canada and Minnesota, or making sure the homemade rink was up to snuff every winter, Henry can now crash on his couch, put up his feet, turn on the tube and just enjoy his handy work.

As the proud patriarch of hockey’s newest royal family, there’s simply nothing better.

“When you’re a hockey dad you’re always sitting around the rink and chatting (with the other dads), saying; ‘Why did the coach do that?’ ” Henry said during a media conference call Tuesday. “I feel bad giving advice now.”

Three of Henry’s four boys -- Eric, Marc and Jordan -- have stormed the NHL ice throughout the past four seasons.

Eric, the oldest at 22, is a fourth-year All-Star center for the Carolina Hurricanes and wears the only Stanley Cup championship ring in the family.

Marc, 20, is a rookie defenseman with the New York Rangers and Jordan, 19, is the record-setting second-year center for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A fourth brother, Jared, the youngest, is a 17-year-old right wing eligible for the 2008 Entry Draft.

“A couple weeks ago, Eric and I were sitting on the couch and we were watching Marc play with the Rangers,” Jordan said. “I said; ‘Can you believe this? I’m playing against you tomorrow and we’re watching Marc play on TV.’ I can’t believe it.”

Neither can Henry.

In fact, when asked if he ever thought he’d be where he was Tuesday – at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario on the same conference call with sons Eric in Carolina, Marc in New York, and Jordan in Pittsburgh – Henry said; “I probably would have said you’re crazy. I also would have been so excited that I would have gone out and told everyone.”

Henry is fond of his own hockey resume, which includes the 45 goals and 55 assists he registered for the Lakehead University Norwesters from 1978-83. His 100 points are still 13th on the Canadian college’s all-time scoring list, but he never came close to touching his childhood dream.

So, forgive him if he enjoys every minute of watching his boys realize their hockey dreams.

“By the time I was five-years-old, I wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was my goal in life, but you have to be able to play the game at a certain level and I was never at that level,” Henry said. “You say you don’t want to live your life through your kids, which I don’t, but I just enjoy it. I enjoy the father-son thing, watching the games, meeting the different players.”

How could he not?

He’s now living the hockey dad’s dream, one only Louis Sutter can understand.

Louis Sutter is the proud papa to six former NHL standouts, four of which have gone on to coach or be general managers in the league, including Brent, the current coach of the New Jersey Devils, and Darryl, the GM in Calgary.

Henry, though, shies away from being discussed in the same paragraph as Louis Sutter. It’s not because they were six and his is four, but because his four haven’t come close to matching Louis’s six.

“All of them had successful careers,” Henry said of the Sutters, “and maybe because they’re (his sons) just starting out you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.”

Nor should he. After all, the best is still to come.

Because Eric, Marc and Jordan all play in the Eastern Conference -- Marc and Jordan both in the Atlantic Division – there is the potential for a combined 16 regular-season games between two Staal brothers this season. Jordan and Marc will play each other eight times, and each will play against Eric four times.

Of course, then there is also the potential for a seven-game playoff series or two come April and May.

Therefore, Henry estimated that with his wife, Linda, they’d get to between 15 and 20 NHL games this season. Remember, too, that Jared plays in Sudbury, Ontario for the Wolves of the OHL. That’s roughly a 600-mile drive from Thunder Bay, one they’ll make often.

“We try to get around a bit and we plan one month in advance,” Henry said of how he and Linda work their visits. “We try to catch a few games in the Toronto area because they all end up going there to Buffalo and Toronto. At home, though, it’s a lot of DVR recording. Watch one game, skip through it, and watch another one.”

The on-ice action is easy for Henry to handle. He doesn’t get queasy if one brother takes out another with a strong hip check into the boards. Heck, Marc brags about a photo he has of him crushing Jordan during a junior game a few years ago.

Henry, though, isn’t a fan of the end result.

“There’s always one guy who is not too happy,” he said.

It’s not as if watching the boys play against one another is anything new for Henry and Linda. For years they would see them play two-on-two deep into the darkness in their homemade rink on the family’s sod farm in Thunder Bay.

They’d hobble into the house with black-and-blued knees and legs from all the slashing going on during these free-for-all games. Occasionally sticks would fly over the boards and arguments would rage between the ultra-competitive boys.

”We had some heated battles,” Eric said.

“Marc was probably the guy who could push buttons a little easier,” Henry said. “Eric was definitely the stubborn one. It’s just his character and it has stood him well in hockey. Maybe stubborn is not the right word, but determined.

“None of them are quiet.”

At least the house finally is.



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