Friday, March 2, 2012

Same Vision, Hands; Paul Stastny a Mirror-Image of his Father

By Larry Wigge

It was more than a decade ago when I was at a Christmas Party in St. Louis that I noticed this one youngster skating through the neutral zone into what would be the offensive zone, head up, looking around to make a play with the puck, shoulders bowed, ready to uncoil and put the puck within inches of its target with plenty of English on it.

Did you ever get a glimpse, a flashback, almost like seeing a mirror-image of someone you used to watch and admire? Well, that's the feeling I got that afternoon more than 10 years ago. I couldn't put my finger on who this kid reminded me of ... until an older man skated up to this boy, with the same stand-up style, same head-on-a swivel look for a teammate to pass the puck to. Same great hands. 

That was my initiation to Paul Stastny, who, has put together five-plus seasons in the NHL this season. In doing so, he is more than kind of a throwback -- a second generation player.

"He's built like his dad, he's got the same strong hands and ability to find a player with a pass through the tiniest opening," Joe Sakic told me a few years back -- exhibiting minor flashback symptoms from his days breaking into the NHL in Quebec with the Nordiques. "Paul is such a smart player, he's always in the right place. The sky's the limit for him.

"And the resemblance in style of play to Peter is eery."

Sakic played for the team when they were in Quebec City -- and he clearly remember the days when Paul's father, Peter, along with brothers Anton and Marian were stars on the Quebec Nordiques.

Paul was born in Quebec City, but got his training in a St. Louis training program that included former Blues center Mike Zuke as his coach in Mite hockey. 

"When I saw Paul as a Mite, I knew there was something special about him," Zuke told me a few years ago. "He sees the ice so well and has great hands. I could tell he had that attitude -- that desire to do well. Add that to the skills and vision, and that is what it takes to make it." 

Paul Stastny, in his sixth NHL season, has won an NCAA championship with the Denver University in 2004-05 and competed for the US silver medal-winning team at Vancouver in 2010. The 6-foot, 205-pounder was drafted by the Avalanche in the second round, 44th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

This season, he 16 goals, 24 assists in 61 games. 

It's a little early to predict where Paul Stastny will stand in NHL history, but the bloodlines are certainly there.

"Dad was a just a great all-around player. I can't tell if any one thing he had has been passed on to me, but there are parts of my game I try to develop. Even though my dad was European, he was such a gritty player," explained Paul. "I like to pattern myself after him. If I do that, I'll be successful." 

But it was a different sort of dream for the father years ago, when his goal was to escape the onerous oppression in a Soviet-bloc, hybrid nation that treated Slovaks as an even deeper underclass. Paul, 20, knows the history. Yet even he has said many times that he can't pretend to fully appreciate how comparatively easy he has had it. 

"Paul is terrific with the puck ... it seems to follow him around. Down low, he's got great vision, finding  people," said Joel Quenneville, coach of the Chicago Black Hawks.

Paul Stastny always seems hyper. He moves in quick little bursts around the Avalanche locker room, whether gulping water after a hard practice or dressing as though he's in a beat-the-clock contest against teammates. He talks in quicker bursts, almost as fast as those people at the end of car ads.

On skates, in a game for the Avalanche, Stastny seems more deliberate. It's his mind that is faster than everybody else's.

"Peter was so strong on the puck. There's lots of guys in the league who are big, but you can lift their stick and take it away," said TSN commentator and former NHLer Ray Ferraro. "Paul has his dad's strength."

Father and son talk a lot, even though Peter now spends most of his time in Brussels, Belgium representing Slovakia in the European Parliament or at home in Bratislava, at the country’s reborn nation's capital. Peter, Anton and Marian didn't have it as easy as Paul and Yan growing up in a Communistic era. The older Stastnys had to defect to North America to get the opportunity of a lifetime to play in the NHL.

But Peter never forced his boys into the game.

"When they told me they wanted to play I helped teach them as much as I could about the game," Peter told me. "I taught them to respect the game first and then to work as hard as they could to succeed."

"I can’t tell you how much I owe my dad," Paul said. "He was there when I was growing up and he's still there for me. We talk by phone almost every day. I’m amazed how much he knows about what’s going on in my life, even before I tell him. But that’s OK. 

"I really look up to him. I listen when he critiques me. I'm fortunate that my dad was a Hall of Famer. One might think there could be pressure at times, but there's not."

The Avalanche has long been strong at the center position -- Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Paul Stastny in the 2006 season. Now, Stastny heads a younger group at center -- Matt Duchesne and Ryan O'Reilly.

"Every year I've been here, I've been taking a bigger role on the team, that my father took," Stastny said. "I have to step it up more on and off the ice. I'm a quiet guy, still learning from others, but eventually I'm going to try to step into that role.

"I think actions speak louder than words, but sometimes when you step up and say something, guys will respect you and listen to what you have to say. They've put a lot of trust, commitment and faith in me. They've given me every opportunity to become who I am and keep growing as a player.

"I'm not going to stop what I've been doing. I'm going to keep growing as a player."

Paul Stastny has few memories of his early years in Quebec City, where his dad had 450 goals and 789 began a career that also saw him play in New Jersey and St. Louis over a 15-year career. His uncles combined Anton and Marian combined for another 373 goals and 557 assists. 

"My first memory of hockey and Quebec City was when I was about five and I was playing a lot on this pond near our house," Paul recalls. "My brother (Yan), my dad and my uncles. They were so good. Great skaters. They made the puck dance like it was on a string the way they passed it around."

The string-like passing skill now belongs to Paul.

"His dad scored a lot of goals on me," said Quenneville. "Paul has that same drive and creative mind like Peter had. He is terrific with the puck ... it seems to follow him around. Down low, he's got great vision and an innate ability to find a teammate for a great scoring chance."

"The Stastnys," goaltending coach Rick Wamsley, a former NHL goalie, said with disdain. "They terrorized goalies like me for years. I wasn't around to see Paul's development in youth hockey here in St. Louis, but you can see how much he thinks the game the same way as Peter did."

"It’s really something when I watch Paul," Peter said recently, when he was in St. Louis watching Paul plays against the Blues. "It's like a flashback. I watch him and I see myself."

Paul said that's no coincidence. He watched his dad coaching him and his brother. He always tried to copy all the same moves, the same style.

"Dad was such a great all-around player," Paul said. "I can't tell you what he passed on to me, there are so many things he taught me. I know he was gritty and tough for European-style players of his day. He was intense and so talented. That intensity is what I try to emulate."

"Everyone tells me how much they think Paul is like me as a player," said Peter. "That means a lot to me, because I've seen him grow so much as a man. I'm so proud of him. He's a good kid. A happy kid. Not like me. I was too serious.

"Paul has never stopped amazing me. He was born to play this game and born to play the position of center. He has such great vision and foresight. He knows where his teammates are and knows what to do with the puck and when to do it. These are things that are not possible to teach."

Born to play in the NHL? 

"I can't explain it," Paul said. "When I'm on the ice, I can see two or three options where other players might only see one. It must be from the genes, from my old man." 

There’s a big gap-toothed smile on Paul Stastny’s face when he mentions his dad.

With that vision and those hands. Those marvelous skills are a unique throwback to the days when the name Stastny was on the lips of every coach, player and fan of the NHL.

And now those same talents are back ... and they are just as welcome in this new era. 


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