MAY 12, 2009 — The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. When you ask random hockey fans to name the key players on that team, you will probably be met with silence and then, “Oh yeah, Doug Weight, umm, Rod Brind’Amour, uhh, Ron Francis, oh no, he retired that season, hmmm, Mark Recchi, and that defenseman with all the hair, uhh Mike Commodore…and, uhh, Erik uhh Cole, and that rookie goalie Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe trophy. They came outta nowhere. I think that’s all of them.”
The forgotten man is, of course, Eric Staal.
He led his team in playoff scoring that season. Eric Staal? Isn’t he related to Jordan Staal of Pittsburgh, and Mark Staal of the New York Rangers? Yes he is, and he is also the best hockey player of the trio. Brother Jordan plays with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a rather high profile team. Speaking of high profile, brother Mark plays for the Rangers. Eric however, plays in relative obscurity in a southern state which is best known for being home to the most heated rivalry in all of college basketball (North Carolina/Duke) and prior to the hockey team being relocated there from Hartford in 1996, no real hockey tradition. Thus, both of his brothers tend to get more ink.
In all fairness, in the 2005-2006 season, the NHL was coming back after losing a full season due to the players’ inability to think for themselves, and all eyes were on the rookie of the year race between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin took the honors, though neither of their teams made the postseason. Sidney Crosby had 39 goals that season, Ovechkin had 52.
Amidst all that hype, almost no one noticed that Staal – in only his second season – had increased his regular season goal production from 11 to 45 and his regular season point total from 31 to 100.
Eric won the Stanley Cup in only his second NHL season. He also led his team in goals (45), and points (100) during the regular season. His 19 regular season power play goals tied Rod Brind’Amour for the team lead. There would be no letdown in the playoffs, as Staal had 19 assists to go along with his nine goals (seven on the power play) as he led his team in post-season scoring en route to hoisting the Cup. With venerable NHL veterans Doug Weight and Rod Brind’Amour finally picking up their first championship rings and Mark Recchi his third, with a rookie goalie was named playoff MVP, Staal was effectively overshadowed.
Fast forward to present. Staal is one of only eight remaining players from that 2006 championship team. After this, his second 40-goal regular season, the 24 year-old from Thunder Bay, Ontario, is again leading his team in playoff scoring with nine goals and twelve total points. He is also once again being overshadowed by Crosby and Ovechkin, whose teams are currently locked in mortal combat in the other (higher profile) Eastern Conference semi-final.
The durable Staal has missed only one regular season game during his five-year career. Only in his rookie season did he fail to score at least 30 goals. His young career has already yielded 164 goals and 194 assists. He was the second overall draft pick in 2003, right behind Marc-Andre Fleury. He played his first NHL game at age 19 and went on to play 81 games in his rookie season. Jordan and Mark are both on their way to becoming solid NHL players. The final “InSTAALment” arrives in the form of youngest brother Jared, who should be arriving soon to the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him 49th overall last June.
The Staal brothers were raised on a sod farm in Northern Ontario, work ethic ingrained in this hardscrabble bunch. When all is said and done, this quartet from Thunder Bay Ontario may supplant the six Sutter boys from Viking, Alberta as the best brother act in NHL history. If this does come to pass, it will be due to the iron-clad Staal pedigree established by Eric as he shows his brothers the way with his exemplary grit, toughness and terrific work ethic much like Brian Sutter did for his brothers some 33 years ago.