NHL superstars are not self-made. Even the most skilled players need mentors to harness their talent and point it in a productive direction.
The mentors often go unnoticed, shaping hockey hearts and minds in local youth rinks far from the spotlight. The lessons they try to impart sometimes don't truly sink in with the player until years down the road.
But the influence is undeniable. Just ask Carolina superstar Eric Staal, who has a story with which most, if not all, NHL players can relate. Staal's mentor was Darryl Blazino, his Bantam-level coach back in Thunder Bay, Ont.
"I really think he saw something in me that, maybe, other people didn't and we ended up winning the Ontario provincial (championship) that year," Staal told NHL.com.
Staal was 15 at the time, his hockey career still opening up before him. In fact, he soon left Blazino and Thunder Bay, joining Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League as a 16-year-old. But Blazino's support remained a huge part of Staal's success in the OHL. Blazino still has a tangible effect on Staal's life today, serving as star center's dentist.
"He was a good man and a great coach and really helped in my transition to the Ontario Hockey League," Staal said. "He's also an excellent dentist."
Blazino had some hockey success of his own before he turned to coaching. He played junior hockey with the Thunder Bay Flyers of the USHL and actually was a part of two league titles and a Centennial Cup championship in the late 1980s.
So Blazino knew about success from firsthand experience. He says Staal's drive to be the best was his most memorable attribute, even back in his Bantam days.
"Eric was a member of the team (the Bantam Kings) during my final year as head coach and I remember that by the second half of the year, he was probably our best player," Blazino said. "He just kept outdistancing himself from the rest of the group as the year went on.
"He had an unbelievable knack for finding ways to score goals and knew when an opportunity would present itself even before it happened. He also had a really competitive drive and, even though he wasn't a very talkative kid, you could sense this was a player who would find a way to win -- he just hated to lose."
That desire to win has never abated, not even after Staal won the ultimate hockey prize, the Stanley Cup, in 2006 -- his first NHL postseason appearance, no less. This season, Staal is back for his second try at Stanley Cup glory, leading the red-hot Hurricanes into the postseason party for the first time since the Cup victory.
Staal leads his team with 40 goals, the second time he's reached that plateau in his five-year career.
Henry Staal, Eric's father and another of his hockey mentors, was pleased when he found out that Eric has not forgotten his hockey roots.
"Eric was a good player on that Bantam team, but he certainly wasn't the best player in the room," Henry Staal said. "I feel Darryl kind of believed in him, even though he wasn't the biggest or strongest guy on the team. Darryl put a lot on Eric's shoulders and told him he could do it, and it was Darryl's confidence in Eric that gave him his own sort of confidence.
"Eric liked him as a coach and (Blazino) taught him a lot. As parents, you always tell your son, 'Good game;' but as parents, we're supposed to say that. That year, with Darryl as coach, was a big year right before his rookie season in Peterborough in the OHL and it was Darryl who really believed in him and gave him an opportunity. He played a huge part."
Blazino is grateful he had the opportunity to coach the eldest of the four Staal brothers and get to know such a wonderful family.
"They were always present and entirely supportive; there's no doubt in my mind you couldn't have better parents involved," Blazino said. "It's so important to have supportive parents in the stands.
In my first year as coach, I had (Vancouver's) Tyler Pyatt, (Chicago's) Patrick Sharp and (Ottawa's) Alex Auld all on the same team, and I also had another player who I feel was actually on their level, but his parents felt he could never do any wrong and any problem that occurred was the result of someone else. I've seen players who would have done far, far better if their parents were not involved in such a negative way. I'm talking kids with NHL potential who never got close because it was instilled in them that it was always someone else's fault. Then there are other families, such as the Staals, who really made coaching fun."
Blazino isn't surprised by Staal's success; rather, how much he has achieved in just four seasons - that Stanley Cup in 06, being named All-Star MVP in 08 and already serving as an alternate captain. Plus, this September, Staal signed a seven-year deal with the Hurricanes that will begin in the 2009-10 season.
But, it is the Stanley Cup title that still boggles the Bantam coach's mind.
"When I watched him skate the Cup around the ice, I thought I was dreaming," Blazino said. "Still, even in his rookie year as an 18-year-old, I did notice that he could dominate some of those 30-year-old men out there. For me, that's when it really hit home.
In fact, there were a few shifts where, if I never saw a hockey game in my life and happened to be watching for the first time, I would have picked Eric as the best player on the ice. To see him put it together after the work stoppage and come back in 2005-06 and score 100 points and win a Cup was mind-boggling to me."
The 39-year-old Blazino, who has been a dentist in Thunder Bay for the past 15 years, knows it's just a matter of time before Eric wears the 'C' on his sweater.
"He has all the qualities you would find in a leader, but he just isn't outspoken," Blazino said. "He's quiet, but his sense and feel for the game were second to no one. He knew when the time was to act and when you had to take chances. It just wasn't in his nature to speak aloud, but I think now that he's a little older and more comfortable, he will begin to excel off the ice as a leader."