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Where hockey players grow Add to ...

The farmyard rink is pretty much gone now. The chain-link fencing that kept stray pucks in play and the wooden poles that held the outdoor lights have been taken down. Only a few rotten boards remain on the rich northwestern Ontario soil that lies near the slope of Candy Mountain.

"There's really nothing there," Linda Staal says of the rink her husband built. Besides, she has a couple of sick boys at home. Sore throats. "Let's go somewhere else for a coffee," she suggests.

And with that, Henry and Linda Staal, parents to a Stanley Cup champion, two world champions, a two-time world junior champion and a promising forward in the Ontario Hockey League, sit down with a reporter in a setting so suited to their lifestyle it could be put to canvas and entitled Canadian Gothic.

We meet at a Tim Hortons. The only thing missing is a hockey stick clenched upright in Henry Staal's right hand.

You've no doubt heard of Eric Staal, the imposing forward for the Carolina Hurricanes, and of Jordan Staal, who scored 29 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins and was nominated for the NHL's Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Soon you will hear of Marc Staal, a defenceman for the New York Rangers, and soon after that you will hear of Jared Staal, who could complete the run by becoming the fourth son to be drafted in the first round by an NHL team.

But how did this happen? How did two parents of Dutch descent produce four boys who took their backyard games on a rink built of scraps to some of the biggest, sold-out arenas around the world?

Are Henry and Linda Staal simply four-time winners in the great genetic lottery? Was it something in the water they drank? The food they ate? The air they breathed?

"It's a question we've asked ourselves," Henry says between sips of coffee. "We can't figure it out."

"Nobody in our family is very athletic," Linda adds.

"What?" Henry yelps, as if wounded to the core. "Holy cow."

Henry Staal is an athletic-looking man at 49 even if his on-ice accomplishments pale in comparison to his sons'. His forearms are thick and tanned; the result of working 350 of the 500 acres he owns just outside Thunder Bay off Highway 61.

At the height of the sod farming business, Henry works long hours, from 7 a.m. to as long as it takes. Friends say they've seen Henry still making sod deliveries at 7 p.m.

For this big night out at Tim Hortons, Henry wears a red Team Canada T-shirt that fits tight across his muscled shoulders and loose around his stomach. He acknowledges he is still six foot, 185 pounds; the height and playing weight of his days with the Lakehead University Norwesters hockey team where he wore No. 12, the number Eric wears with the Hurricanes.

Linda Staal, 47, is lean and lanky with her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She used to skate with her sons on the rink that Henry built by scouring the city and picking up used boards and pieces. She jokes about her husband's playing days and happily notes that her height has been passed along to her sons.

"I have two brothers who are 6 foot 4," Linda says. "So they got something from me."

"She's also got two brothers who are 5 foot 8," interjects a grinning Henry.

But back to the question: how did it happen? How did the Staals join the Sutters as our nation's leading producers of Grade-A hockey talent?

Let's start with the work ethic that was DNA'ed into the Staals by Henry's father, who immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the 1950s, and by Linda's father, John VanderZwaag, who did the same thing in search of a better life for his family.

Both the Staals and the VanderZwaags believed in toiling for their rewards. They came from small towns and the fathers worked two jobs to support their wife and children.

"My dad worked with a ministry. He did landscaping full-time in the summer then worked with an oil company in the winter," Henry said. "Linda's dad worked in construction and ran a dairy farm. That was in the old days when you pitched bales of hay by hand. He put in a lot of man hours."

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