By Larry Wigge
It seems that when the Staal boys of Thunder Bay were growing up, their father, Henry, would ask each boy every year if he wanted to play hockey the following season and, if he did, away they'd go to register.
One year, when the third son, Jordan, was 9 or perhaps 10 years old, he surprised his father by informing him he wanted to play in the NHL one day.
The father dutifully told his son of the need for commitment, discipline and sacrifice and that if he had all of those in sufficient quantity, well, one day, he might realize his dream.
To which Jordan responded quizzically, "Can't you just sign me up?"
"I heard about that one day and I asked Jordan if it really happened," Pittsburh Penguins GM Ray Shero said yesterday with a huge smile. "He said, 'Uh-huh.' "
There is plenty of passion and heart and soul in Jordan Staal. After all, he was the second pick overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and he won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
I asked if there might be a league rule passed that every Stanley Cup has to include a member of the Staal family. He laughed and said, "With four brothers owned by NHL teams now, we've got a pretty good shot at something like that."
This year they may be facing an uphill battle to win it again, digging themselves a 3-0 deficit before scoring eight unanswered goals in a 10-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in the quarterfinal round matchup.
"You don't want to have any regrets."
That was a pretty powerful mantra that Staal had for the Penguins.
For the first time in his playoff career, Staal scored a hat trick -- giving him five goals in the last two games.
Noted as a terrific defensive center, somehow defensive tactics have been thrown out the window in this series. Which had always led us to the question, why couldn't Jordan Staal score more goals?
Even in spite of that great anecdote from Shero on Jordan Staal, the Penguins have an abundance of centers -- quality players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Prior to the 2006 draft, Shero didn't care about anything but adding Staal to the lineup.
"I wanted Jordan Staal," Shero said. "Our staff wanted Jordan. It was basically a consensus. I wasn't picking him to trade him because we already had Sid and Geno.
"They say you build from a position of strength. That was the process there, still is."
"When you talk about strength up the middle and the Penguins, it doesn't end with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby," Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg said. "Jordan Staal is a big guy and he's got great speed. He's another difference maker."
So what has happened to the Penguins? That position of strength has been neutralized ... up until now.
Coincidence? Not even close. Two young teams on the way up, with a swagger just looking to learn how to win ... and dominate the NHL. And you could say that the last time a teen began as the dominant player in a major team sport occurred in 1979-80, when Gretzky was Crosby's age.
"They've won Cups and, you know, and we've yet to do that," Crosby said, not wanting to get into a debate about this year's Penguins and the Oilers. "We still have some things to prove. It's a nice compliment, but ..."
"Crosby is very similar to Wayne," says Rangers GM Glen Sather, who coached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career. "Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen Sid do amazing things, like Wayne. He's feisty, and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way but not like this guy."
To prove that there will always be differing views, we asked Messier to give us his thoughts of a comparison. But how about the new kids on the block, Mess?
"I personally love the way Sid and Geno play. I think Crosby could play in any era. He'll take a hit to make a play. He's an honest throw-back player," Messier continued, referring to Crosby and Malkin. "I think Crosby could play in any era. He plays tough hockey. He plays very honest hockey. There are no frills about him. And Malkin, I love the way he uses his size. I think he's one of the most exciting players I've seen in a long time. I love his skill level. I love the amount of ice he covers. I love the way he forechecks. I just think he's a tremendous hockey player.
"That's a dynamic pair ... and you have to also mention the size, speed and skill of Jordan Staal. No one has had that kind of strength down the middle in a long, long time, if ever."
Henry and Linda Staal didn't raise fools. Just unassuming sons. They tore up the basement by shooting pucks off the insulation, but there was no over-the-top rambunctiousness. The last time anyone can remember a full-scale outbreak of sibling rivalry was 10 years ago, when Jordan scored a goal and Marc took exception by slugging him.
Thunder Bay is not a city as much as a fiefdom of 120,000 at the head of Lake Superior, connected to the wider world in almost random ways.
If you make a left out of Sunshine Sod Farm, then a quick right up an unpaved road to Highway 61, you have a few options. You can drive west eight hours to Winnipeg, east seven hours to Sault Ste. Marie, south 3 1/2 hours across the border to Duluth or six to Minneapolis. In other words, you do not leave Thunder Bay on a whim.
This is a self-contained world with a university, a brawny port, a famous land formation known as the Sleeping Giant, road signs that warn about moose at night, and hockey, a game that connects the disparate dots at the 48th Parallel.
It's amazing how many people play here," said Henry, a forward with a big heart and mediocre hands at local Lakehead University in the late '70s and early '80s. "Even guys my age still play scrub hockey."
If anyone is able to rebound from a 3-0 lead, it's would be one Henry and Linda Staal's boys.