It was around the same time Eric Staal won Little League Rookie of the Year honors in the mid-1990s that he discovered his calling.
"I attended a banquet and got the award, but I knew baseball wasn't my sport," the eldest of the four hockey-playing brothers told NHL.com. "Baseball was a little slow, but hockey was more fast-paced and kept me more involved. I tried baseball the one year, but the following summer focused on hockey."
|Staal brothers Jordan and Eric at the 2007 NHL TV Awards Show. |
The decision by big brother to hit the ice instead of the infield ultimately paved the way for each of his younger siblings too.
"I think when you grow up (in Thunder Bay, Ontario), you see hockey all the time and you love it," Staal's father, Henry, told NHL.com. "It's the game you naturally gravitate to and it's the game everybody talks about, so that's the reason the boys probably wanted to keep with it."
Eric agreed. "Many people in the city are into sports, especially hockey," he said. "For me and my brothers, it's always a great place to go back to in the summer and see a lot of people you grew up with. There's quite a few NHL players from Thunder Bay, like Taylor (Vancouver) and Tom (Rangers) Pyatt, Patrick Sharp (Chicago), Ryan Johnson (Vancouver), Trevor Letowski (Barys Astana of the Kontinental Hockey League) and Alex Auld (Ottawa), so it's a pretty good group."
Big brother was a lot better back in the day because now I'm basically the smaller brother since they're all taller than I am and probably heavier now. - Eric Staal
On top of that, 23-year-old Eric was the one to raise the bar when he became the only Staal -- so far -- to have his named engraved on the Stanley Cup as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season.
"Big brother was a lot better back in the day because now I'm basically the smaller brother since they're all taller than I am and probably heavier now," Eric Staal laughed. "It was a lot of fun though and they're great brothers. We played a lot of sports in Thunder Bay, but I always made sure we did the right things and didn't get into too much trouble."
Like Eric, 20-year-old Jordan, who came close to equaling his brother's Cup celebration last season with Pittsburgh, became an NHL regular the same year he was drafted. Marc, a 21-year-old defenseman with the Rangers, needed two additional seasons of experience before finally earning his NHL shot. The youngest Staal, 18-year-old Jared, a right wing, was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round (No. 49) of the 2008 Entry Draft, and likely will spend his third season with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League in 2007-08.
"During the regular season I usually get around to speaking with my brothers once a week or once every two weeks," Eric said. "There's a lot of text messaging over the phone to get updates. I'll usually catch some highlights of their games on the Internet or television to see how they're doing, but sometimes it's not all hockey talk but life in general. Especially for Marc living in New York City; that's an experience in itself."
This spring, Eric, Jordan and Marc hope to become the first trio of brothers to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1992, when the Broten brothers -- Aaron, Neal and Paul -- and Sutter brothers -- Brent, Rich and Ron -- earned postseason roles. If that occurs, the Eastern Conference Playoffs could resemble those backyard battles on the home-made ice rink in Thunder Bay.
"It was their domain," Henry Staal said of the family's rink. "We made it, they did their thing and (my wife and I) tried to stay away while they had at it."
"Playing hockey outdoors was just different," said Eric. "Being out there in the freezing cold and continuing to play and bang the puck around because it was something to do are memories I'll never forget. It's pretty cold all winter long in Thunder Bay, but playing gave us a chance to get out of the house and do something productive."
The Staal Games, which usually began following work on the family's sod farm, traditionally had Eric and Jared paired against Jordan and Marc.
"Mark was usually the first one swinging his stick against either Jared or Jordan, so I'd be the mediator and getting Marc back after he beat up the younger guys," Eric said with a smirk. "Sometimes sticks were thrown and there were a few scuffles, but nothing too crazy."
"You never wanted to lose a series -- especially to your brother," said Marc. "It's not a good feeling."
When Jordan was the last Staal standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, Eric, Marc and Jared became his biggest supporters.
"Obviously I would have rather been in his place in the Final, but I was cheering for him and wishing him the best," Marc said. "It's too bad they couldn't pull it off. When we're on the ice and playing against each other it's a totally different feeling. I don't think that will ever go away. I love playing those guys."
Eric was extremely proud of his brother during the Penguins' march to the Cup Final, even if it meant eliminating Marc's Rangers in five games during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"We sent text messages to each other quite often and it was great to see that he was one of their top guys out there," Eric said. "He (Jordan) definitely had a trying year during the season at times, but in the playoffs really stepped his game up while matched against the other teams' top guys, which isn't easy. He did a great job with that."
Looking back, Jordan, who had 6 goals and 7 points in 20 playoffs games last season, feels he and his teammates did all they could to give the Red Wings a run for their money in the Final.
"It's a long season, and mentally it's tough to be prepared for every game and that's something I improved on a lot," he said. "I also learned how close your team has to be to make it as far as we did. Everybody has to be on the same page and working toward the same goal. I believe we had a team that was doing that last year and that's why we had success."
Eric, Marc and Jordan are looking forward to the day when Jared, who attended Coyotes rookie camp this summer, will join them in the NHL.
"He's obviously still young," Jordan said. "Marc played four years in Sudbury and it took him a while to develop and I believe that Jared is headed in that same direction. He's gotten stronger and faster and a lot smarter. It's only a matter of time before he realizes he can play and I believe he'll make it some day so long as he keeps working at it."
Eric was in transit when he got the news little brother had been drafted.
"I was actually on a trip in Europe and e-mailed him right away when I got the news," Eric said. "He's worked very hard to be where he's at and he will be a great player. He was drafted by a great young team with great people. I just told him that it was a good opportunity and he just needs to continue to do what he does best."
Marc said Jared's size (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) and skill set will lead him to a promising NHL career.
"Jared's a big right winger and a pretty good passer with good hands," he said. "He's very excited to get drafted by Phoenix and get his career going. He's looking to have a good year (in Sudbury) and improve and we're all very proud of him."Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer