Henry Staal has seen his sons do wondrous things in hockey: captain NHL all-star teams, win Stanley Cups, win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal for Canada.
But in late February, when Staal watched his oldest son, Eric, steamroll younger brother Marc, knocking him out of a game and into uncertainty, that was a first – and not a good one, the father said.
Since that hit, Marc has experienced post-concussion symptoms and seen limited action. While his New York Rangers travelled to Sweden and through Western Canada to open the 2011-12 NHL season, he has stayed behind, still bothered by the headaches brought on through exertion. No one is sure when he’ll be cleared for contact in practice, a necessary step before getting game clearance, and that has cast a long shadow over several fronts.
In Thunder Bay, where parents Henry and Linda Staal reside, they’ve gotten past the angst of seeing one son rattle another in hockey and are hoping for a full recovery.
In Carolina, where Eric, 26, captains the Hurricanes, the oldest brother still feels terrible about lowering the boom when Marc had his head down looking for the puck. (“Eric really isn’t pleased about it,” Henry insisted. “He’s not happy.”)
As for Marc, he joked with reporters his dad “probably wasn’t as mad [about the hit]as my mom was.”
But a concerned Henry replied: “It wasn’t good seeing him hit … Marc doesn’t say a lot, even to us. He never complains much.”
Marc, 24, had been carrying the puck along the side boards when he was hooked by a Carolina player. With the puck in his skates, he looked down for a second only to get hit high by his 6-foot-4, 205-pound brother. Henry, who follows his sons’ action via television, saw the play and did his best to explain what transpired between the two siblings.
“Marc has played hard against Eric before and there’s always a little extra when they go against each other,” Henry said. “Marc was looking at the puck and couldn’t get his hands up. Eric caught him and he went flying. Things happens.”
Marc did play for New York in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs but struggled with headaches through the summer. He came to training camp and did the physical testing and suffered further setbacks. He had planned to be with the team when it went overseas but instead was told to take it easy. That order remains unchanged.
Marc Staal had emerged as the 24-year-old leader of a young Rangers defence. Last season, he played in his first NHL all-star game after being selected by Eric, who was named captain of one of the competing teams. Strong defensively and known for throwing some big hits of his own, including one on 23-year-old brother Jordan, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marc also produced a career-high 29 points.
Without their best over-all defender, the Rangers have been relying heavily on Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, a pairing that combined for the winning goal in last Thursday’s overtime win in Calgary against the Flames. To this point, Girardi has become the NHL leader in minutes played, while McDonagh has been asked to do more in just his second season in the league.
“We’re all filling a lot of roles we’re not used to. I happen to kill a lot more [penalties]” McDonagh said. “We’re not trying to play like Marc. It’s about guys stepping up a little bit more and playing together as a unit.”
Girardi said the players aren’t aware of how Staal is doing physically. They only know his return is not imminent.
“The trainers don’t tell us anything [about Staal’s condition]because we don’t need that in our heads. We have to go out and play,” Girardi said. “Marc is such a big part of this team. He’s an assistant captain. We miss him but we can’t use that as an excuse. We don’t know when he’ll be back.”
Most recently, Staal has been spotted at the Ontario Migraine Clinic, which specializes in acupuncture treatment for headache sufferers. (The clinic was closed Friday and calls were not returned.)
He continues to skate on his own and harbours no open hostility towards the repentant Eric.
“It is what it is,” Marc Staal said during training camp. “Can’t do anything about it now.”
Except hope that what happened between the brothers doesn’t end up costing one his career.
“Marc was playing 25, 26 minutes in a game. He was really coming into his own,” said the dad, Henry. “I’m sure he’ll bounce back.”