By Larry Wigge
It sounded like an episode of CSI New York and CSI Carolina. DNA and epithelials were tested. It was of the same family type. Hockey rarely apologizes for the way it values tough guys. A brother sidelining his own brother? Blood vs. blood.
This was it ...
Eric Staal claims he didn't know it was his kid brother, Marc, there along the boards with his head down, fighting another Carolina Hurricane player for the puck in the February 22 game against the New York Rangers.
Things happen fast in a hockey game, everyone later sighed heavily and agreed. Eric just saw a player in a white shirt. And he hit him. Hard. The raw force of the collision is clear even from still images of that February 22 check, not just the gasp of the crowd that comes across loud and clear. The impact lifted Rangers defenseman off his feet, snapped back his head and sent him pinwheeling to the ice face down, with his helmet askew.
After a season, which has been unforgettable for all the of Staals -- Marc out until January 2, Pittsburgh Jordan sidelined several times with injuries and Eric playing unlike himself.
There are those who will tell you that Eric's woes center are Marc's injury.
"It's tough for him; it's tough for me; it's tough for everyone in the family," Eric explained. "But ..."
For Staal's usual 35.8 goals during his six stellar seasons and point-per-game, Eric's numbers were languishing at three goals and two assists with a minus 16 mark through the first 15 games.
He said he wasn't haunted or paralyzed by regrets.
"Has nothing to do with it," Staal said emphatically. "I've ... just not being able to find the groove offensively.
"As far as that being on my mind, it's not even close. Hopefully for me, I'll stay with it, get it turned around and help us win games."
But the longer the slump lingered on, it was obviously something wrong in the DNA department. It wasn't until February 8 that things started to look better -- during a seven-game stretch in which Eric counted six goals and five assists to bring his season's total to 18 goals and 31 assists in 60 games. Down from the usual 35-40 goals for Eric.
"He's a horse right now," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said after a 5-0 triumph over Washington February 20. "When he goes, the whole team goes and he's really elevated his game the last three weeks."
Many of the other players and coaches on both teams -- not just the Staals -- still find the whole thing admittedly confusing. What should they do?
"It's definitely a weird situation because normally, if a guy took liberties with one of our star players like that, we'd key on him the next time we played," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. "But this ... it's brothers. It's different, you know? Obviously, I don't think he wanted to hurt him, or meant to do it."
Could Callahan tell if Eric was playing any differently?
"Aw, I don't know -- it's hard to get inside another player's head, so I don't want to speak for him," Callahan said. "But, at the same time, I think it's got to be definitely weighing on him because, you know, his brother's out, and he caused it. I know that would affect me. I mean, how could it not?"
Whether Eric was or he wasn't playing any differently ... was in one or another head ... is the number one question that wasn't going to have an answer.
Until now, their family story unfurled like something of a sports fairy tale.
Eric was the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft. Marc was the 12th overall pick in the 2005 and Jordan was second overall in 2006. Eric has already won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and a gold medal with Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics of 2010. Jordan won his Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. Marc is playing for the top-rated Rangers this season. In many ways the Staals have become the unofficial first family of hockey in the active players division, anyway, taking over where the Sutters left off. All four Staals are blond, 6-4 and so similar in looks and bearing that they can be difficult to tell apart.
In games or just at the rink built by their father, Henry, you wouldn't see a negative thought -- against a brother or anyone else.
"I wouldn't say it has kept me awake at night, but it's tough," Eric Staal said. "If I could take it back I probably wouldn't hit him knowing where we've gone and what has gone on since then. But it was one of those plays, bang-bang, happens so quickly, and I hit him hard."
Still, the familial feelings remain. The DNA is intact.
It's had been a long time since the 2008 season, when the question for the Staal family was: "Is this the year?"
The one line that could perhaps be answered without a single goal, assist or save remained on the lips of Eric Staal.
"Is this the year we find out who is dad’s favorite?" Eric asks on the commercial, making the most of an old Smothers Brothers routine about who mom liked best that always got a few laughs.
Eric and Marc were both involved in the All-Star Game at Atlanta in 2008. Henry was there ... Linda was at home in Thunder Bay.
Since Henry was in the building for the All-Star Game -- sitting in the stands with Marc (Is that a clue there? I’m not sure yet.) -- and unable to be reached before the game, we dialed up the 807 area code and mom Linda was there to tell us that ...
But who does mom like best? "No comment," Linda laughed. "Is that OK to say?"
After the second period, I was finally successful in reaching the patriarch of the Staal family and discussed this situation amid the blare of a band playing inside the Philips Arena.
"Yeah, I love that commercial," Henry said, then he laughed and added, "My answer? Well, you may never find out."
"There was no time for my parents to think about comparing the Staals to the Sutters," Eric laughed. "They were too busy all over the map watching hockey."
Is this the year? What Henry Staal didn’t know is that his oldest son isn’t beyond bribing his dad for affection.
Listen to Eric as he smiled after being named All-Star MVP and continued, remembering his line in the commercial: "I was saying to the guys on the ice, if I do give it (the car as MVP) to my parents, I would, for sure, be the favorite of the family ... for at least a while. But we’ll see what happens."
Eric did not have to buy his father's love. Neither do Jordan and Marc.
The competitive boys from Thunder Bay say it all when it counts. Family counts.