Staal's star on the rise
Those cold winters Eric Staal spent playing shinny
on a homemade rink in Northern Ontario are paying dividends in sunny
After 11 games Eric Staal has nine goals
and 13 assists . (Getty Images)
Having amassed 22 points through Wednesday's games, the 21-year-old
native of Thunder Bay Ont. is outpacing perennial NHL all-stars like
Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, and highly-touted phenoms like Sidney
Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, in the scoring race.
Staal's stellar play has opened eyes throughout the NHL, so much so that earlier this week he was named the league's offensive player of the month.
His named has been bandied about as a possible member of the team that will represent Canada at the Turin Olympics next February.
Even colourful Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry
called him "the next superstar" in a recent edition of Coach's Corner.
And aside from acclaim, Staal's success on the score sheet has also netted more wins for Carolina. The Hurricanes, to the surprise of even the most plugged-in hockey observer, have been one of hockey's best teams so far this season.
Carolina leads the Southeast Division with eight wins and 17 points. Across the NHL, only the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks have better records.
On a recent conference call, Staal was asked about his success. Did he have to pinch himself to make sure it was all really happening?
"Probably with the leading scorer thing, that's always neat," he admitted.
"I know it's a long year ahead yet," Staal cautioned. "We got 70-something games left."
Like many Canadians, Staal learned how to play hockey on a rink built by his father. Every November, Henry Staal would lay down a patch of ice on his 200-hectare sod farm.
The makeshift rink included boards and, eventually, lights. It was on this modest arena that Eric Staal and his three hockey-crazed brothers honed their skills.
"[My parents] definitely played a huge, huge role," explained Staal, who debuted on the ice at age four.
The Staals have been described by Hockey Night in Canada
host Ron MacLean as Ontario's version of the Sutter family. Six of
Louis Sutter's sons played in the NHL. All four of the Staal boys
have a shot at become professional hockey players.
Marc is currently a defenceman with the Ontario Hockey League's Sudbury Wolves, and was drafted 12th overall by the New York Rangers earlier this year.
Jordan, like Eric did before him, plays for the Peterborough Petes and is expected to be a top NHL draft pick next season.
Jared, the youngest member of the Staal clan, may be the most talented. The 15-year-old plays Triple-A in Thunder Bay and will likely move up to the OHL next season.
"[My parents] supported us all the time, myself and my brothers. They were never ones to push or tell us to do that, tell us to do that on the rink or practice this," Staal said.
"Hopefully we can all be up here in the NHL"
In junior, Staal starred with the Petes, where his 6-foot 3-inch frame and goal-scoring hands had scouts salivating. That's why the Hurricanes selected him second overall in the 2003 Entry Draft.
Staal jumped directly to the NHL the following year. Like many rookies, he struggled to adapt to the NHL's quicker, more physical style of play, registering only 31 points in his first 81 games.
During the lockout, while his peers played in Europe or sat idle, Staal was eligible to play for the Hurricanes' minor league team. He spent the season with Carolina's American Hockey League franchise, the Lowell Lock Monsters.
The experience was key to Staal's development.
"I got to play a lot of minutes there in Lowell. I played with some good players and a good young team," explained Staal, who led the Lock Monsters with 77 points.
"You know, I got confidence that way. I think I just carried it on to this year."
Staal also credits some of his success on the NHL's new offence-friendly rules and crack-down on clutch and grab.
"It's definitely a big difference compared to last year," he said. "This year it's a lot nicer when you can pick up the puck and not get that little hook or hold, just use your speed or skills.
"Hopefully, [referees] continue to call it the way it is, and we can continue to do well."
October 29, 1984 in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Hockey is in the genes:
All three of Staals brothers are expected to make the NHL someday. His cousin, Jeff Heerema, is first round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes in 1998.
Grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky. Joe Sakic is also one of his favourite players.
Going to the bigs:
After a stellar junior career with the Peterborough Petes, he was drafted in the first round by Carolina in 2003.
Scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 23, 2003, in a 2-0 Hurricanes win against the Boston Bruins.