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Like the sacred Montreal Forum and seismic Chicago Stadium and other storied hockey barns that exist only in the scrapbooks of memory, Staal Gardens is history. Henry Staal dismantled the rink nearly two years ago, and now only the detritus of dreams--a dozen or so muck-caked pucks and fragments of wooden boards in the matted grass--serve as testament to a playground that measured 50 by 100 feet but imposed no parameters on the imagination. When they gazed out of their kitchen window, Henry and Linda Staal could see their four sons on the rink, impervious to the lung-searing Ontario winter, but now the mystical spot is hidden by a row of spruces that has grown through the years.
So, of course, have the boys.
In the long line of backyard rinks that have contributed to Canadian puck mythology--Walter Gretzky, of course, flooded one for Wayne--the Staals' miniature marvel with forest-green boards and a string of lights that Henry built for Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared was carved into perhaps the most unusual setting. The Sunshine Sod Farm, 500 acres a few miles south of Thunder Bay, has provided the family with its livelihood. It may also prove the seeding ground of an NHL dynasty.
For the Sunshine Sod Farm boys, the grass has never been greener. Has any hockey family had a better year?
?Eric, a 6'4" center who turns 22 on Sunday, scored 100 points during the regular season and an NHL-leading 28 more in the playoffs as the Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup--making him big-time as well as big. Eric, whose size and on-ice presence is such that he seems to loom over a game, had eight points in Carolina's first nine games this season.
?Marc, 19, a rangy defenseman, was the top defenseman in the World Junior Hockey championship last January, blanketing snipers such as Evgeni Malkin (now with Pittsburgh) and Phil Kessel ( Boston). Although the Rangers returned him to the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League after the preseason last month--with players becoming unrestricted free agents earlier under the new CBA, most teams reflexively send junior-eligible prospects back for seasoning-- New York coach Tom Renney praised him as "a poised, confident player with a long fuse, a guy who can rattle some cages, sure, but who gauges situations."
?Jordan, 18, a slick center, got drafted second overall by the Penguins in June, fresh off helping the Peterborough Petes to a Memorial Cup berth. He won a roster spot in the preseason, sneaking on as the fourth-line center to become the NHL's youngest player, and scored his first goal on Oct. 12 on a shorthanded rush after breaking up a Jaromir Jagr pass against the Rangers. It was no surprise that Jordan swiped the puck and made a nifty deke, but it has been surprising that the rookie, who also had two goals in a win last Saturday, has been entrusted with penalty killing, a job usually reserved for savvy veteran forwards. "He's been put in important situations for a younger guy, and he's handled them great," says teammate Sidney Crosby. "His learning curve is fast."
?Jared, 16, has joined Marc in Sudbury after being the 11th player chosen in the OHL draft. Although he has yet to score a goal while competing against mostly 18- and 19-year-olds, he has played creditably in seven minutes a game on Sudbury's fourth line. The lofty draft position was a mild reach for a right winger who, despite a strong stride and good puckhandling skills, is not a prodigy, but Staal is no longer just a family name. Like Sutter, it is a trusted hockey brand.
Comparisons of the Staals to the NHL's famous Sutter brothers are natural though, for the moment, speculative. You can't take a combined 81 NHL seasons spanning a quarter century for the six hockey-playing Sutters--Brian, Darryl, Duane, Brent and the twins, Rich and Ron--and juxtapose it with two-plus for the Staal family. Still ... large families. Farming backgrounds. (The Sutters grew up on a cattle ranch in Viking, Alberta.) Solid people. Solid skills, although the Staal brothers, long and lean, have more flair. The Staals have already tied the Sutters in 100-point NHL seasons: one.
"I played against pretty much all the Sutters, and they were character guys," says Wolves coach Mike Foligno. "Same with the Staals.... You have to credit the values of bringing up a family the old way. I think the comparisons are appropriate."