- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

It all started on a 500-acre sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Henry Staal built a rink — 50 feet by 100 feet complete with boards — and watched his four sons develop their hockey skills. Little did Henry know that one day he would be the father of the new first family of hockey.

“My dad made us a rink when we were kids, and we pretty much spent every winter up there all winter along,” Eric Staal said. “I had a couple of cousins who lived next door, and they would come by and play as well, but for the most part it was myself and my youngest brother against the two middle ones. It was 2-on-2 games all night long, all day long. We had a lot of fun.”

Henry’s eldest son, Eric, is already a star in the NHL. He led the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in points during the regular season (with 100) and in the playoffs (with 28) last season — as a 21-year old.

The second son, 20-year old Marc, is one the top defenseman prospects in the game. Jordan, the third son, is the youngest player in the NHL at 18 years, five months and seven days but has 24 goals and is one of the league’s top rookies.

At 16, Jared is the youngest and is in his first season of major junior hockey, playing on the same team as Marc in the Ontario Hockey League. With Jared playing for Sudbury, Henry and Linda Staal are spending their first hockey season with an empty nest.

“It is certainly a lot quieter than it once was,” Henry said. “There is a lot less driving through the snow.”

Henry and Linda have spent a lot of time traveling this season. It is an 11-hour drive from Thunder Bay — a city of slightly more than 100,000 on the northwestern shores of Lake Superior — to Sudbury and a seven-hour drive to the nearest OHL team in Sault Ste. Marie.

They spent about two weeks on the road around Christmas, traveling to Buffalo, Pittsburgh and parts of Southern Ontario to catch up with all four sons.

It is not easy to get the entire family together, even during the offseason. They were all together at a draft for the first time this summer when Jordan was selected No. 2 overall by Pittsburgh.

“Everybody went to the first two Stanley Cup games in Raleigh,” Henry said. “Marc, Jordan and Jared really got into it. For guys like that, I know they would rather be playing, but they got into it with the rest of the ‘Caniacs.’ It was really nice. That was the first time since the previous August that we were all together.”

The Washington Capitals have seen plenty of the Hurricanes and Eric the past couple of seasons because both teams play in the Southeast Division. But the Caps get only their third look at Jordan when they travel to Pittsburgh tomorrow to face the surging Penguins on national television.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin will be in the spotlight, but Staal’s play is one of the main reasons the Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL. Pittsburgh has points in 15 straight games (13-0-2) , and Staal has 12 of his goals in that span.

The Penguins have tried to be cautious with him. It was a surprise when he made the team in training camp, but then he proceeded to score five goals in his first 10 games.

That 10th contest was an important one because it ended the speculation Staal might be sent back to his junior team. Had he been sent to Peterborough of the OHL before his 10th game, Staal’s arbitration clock and free agency eligibility would have been delayed another year.

“It was pretty stressful,” Jordan said. “For the first two months I was living in a hotel obviously hoping to make the team. It was definitely an amazing thing when they told me I could stay, and I’ve kinda gone from there.”

Staal played on the Penguins’ third or fourth line earlier in the season but earned more ice time as one of the team’s top penalty killers. He is a natural center, but since moving to the left wing on the second line with Malkin, Staal’s numbers have soared.

Malkin is likely to win the Calder Trophy running away, but if his current streak of production continues, Staal could be his biggest competition. His 24 goals are second to Malkin’s 28 among rookies. Staal’s goals have come on only 85 shots, and his shooting percentage (28.2) is tops in the NHL.

“The biggest surprise is how strong he is for how young he is,” Penguins teammate Ryan Malone said. “He can protect the puck down low, and when he has body control on the defensemen they can’t take the puck from him. Obviously he has the scoring touch, and it has been a great year for him.”

Much was made last season about Crosby living with team owner Mario Lemieux, and this year Malkin and Staal have followed suit with famous landlords. Malkin lives with fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar, and Staal is now living in Mark Recchi’s guest house.

“All the young guys are staying with someone, and Recchi has been great to me,” Jordan said. “He’s been helping me out so I don’t have to worry about some of the stuff off the ice and I can focus on the stuff on the ice. I am really grateful for it.”

While Jordan is 20 months younger than Marc, there have been no jokes about him beating his older brother to the NHL. Marc, who was selected 12th overall by the Rangers in the 2005 draft, has won the family’s only two gold medals with Team Canada in the world junior championships. He could turn pro when Sudbury’s season ends and should be playing on Broadway next season.

When the four brothers were together growing up, it was always Jordan and Marc against Eric and Jared on the ice. Away from it, Jordan said Jared was king when it came to video games.

“We were as competitive with any board game or video game or whatever as we were on the ice,” Eric said. “That probably made us better players. It probably caused a few fights here and there, but it was all resolved.”

With two goals in 53 games, Jared has struggled in his first season with Sudbury. It is not uncommon for a 16-year old to need time to adapt in his first season playing against people three or four years older than him, and Jared still is growing into the Staal family frame.

Eric, Marc and Jordan all are 6-foot-4 and weigh more than 200 pounds. Jared was listed at 6-2 and 185 at the start of the season. He is the only right-handed shot of the four.

“He makes a lot of nice passes,” Eric said of Jared. “He is going to get a lot stronger, and he’s still young, and he is enjoying his first year in juniors. It is tough when you are playing with 19-year-olds, but he has the smarts and the desire to be here.”

Jared was a first-round pick in the 2006 OHL draft and will be eligible for the NHL draft in 2008. Henry and Linda Staal will have one more draft to attend, and eventually they could be traveling to as many as four NHL cities.

Eric became the first member of the family to hoist the Stanley Cup last summer, and the young talent the Penguins have collected could mean Jordan will be doing the same in the near future. Each brother has the added pressure of living up to the family name, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem.

“No question, for sure. I feel bad for all three of them,” Eric said. “For what happened in my career, you know with a Stanley Cup at such a young age and all those things, it kind of puts the microscope on them. The way they have handled it all has been tremendous. They are all doing their own thing, and that is all you can do.”

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