Bond of brothers: Staal siblings savoring their shared playoff run with the Rangers

ByScott Burnside ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- It won't be long now until things likely go back to the way they were -- perhaps as early as Saturday afternoon. Three NHL siblings crossing paths only when the vagaries of the schedule deem it will be so.

But what a time it's been these past few years for the Staal family. What a chance to not just live the dream but to share it among family.

What a time for Eric Staal, who had the opportunity to play alongside his brother Jordan with theCarolina Hurricanesafter Jordan was dealt there by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2012 draft.

The Hurricanes could never quite get things right, though, and so as the final season of Eric's contract began to ebb away he agreed in late February to a trade that would allow him to join another brother, Marc, with theNew York Rangers.

For Eric, 31, this spring has been a long-awaited whetting of the playoff whistle -- or re-whetting. He hadn't been in a playoff game since the fourth game of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, when Jordan and the Penguins swept Carolina en route to a Stanley Cup.

Eric laments that he and Jordan never got to experience the postseason rush as teammates -- only as opponents -- just as Jordan and Marc clashed in a playoff series between the Penguins and Rangers.

Now Marc, 29, and Eric are hoping to keep their playoff hopes alive and enjoying the unique opportunity to share the playoff ride against that same Pittsburgh team.

"As a kid, you dream about being in the NHL," Eric said. "For us, being in the NHL as long as we have, the opportunity to play together and the opportunity to play in big games together, it's pretty special. There's no other way to describe it. It's special."

What do they say about not choosing your family? Sounds like the Staals would choose each other any day.

"We're really close," Eric said. "We have been all the time. I know some people aren't. But we are. And it's special to compete nightly together, especially in huge games, important games."

When Eric spent the day with the Stanley Cup in the summer of 2006 after the Hurricanes won the first championship following the 2004-05 lockout, his brothers -- including the youngest, Jared, a second-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008 who played 64 games in the ECHL this season -- were all on hand, of course. But they studiously avoided touching the Cup for fear of angering the Stanley Cup ghosts. And the community of Thunder Bay, Ontario, embraced the moment just as it would three years later when Jordan won a Cup with the Penguins.

The brothers all own property next to each other on a vast, peaceful lake near the northern city where they were born and raised. Their parents, Henry and Linda, became celebrities of a sort as they traveled hither and yon through junior hockey with their four sons and into the NHL while still operating the family sod farm.

"When you drive into the city, [a sign] says: 'Welcome To Thunder Bay -- Home of the Staal Brothers,'" said Pittsburgh goalieMatt Murray, who is also from Thunder Bay. "It kind of gives you an indication of how big they are in the city. They're always doing charity events and things like that in that city. They're like royalty in that city."

The first goal Murray allowed in the NHL was to Jordan Staal. Those T-Bay boys. Go figure.

In the Rangers locker room, the interplay between the brothers has been enjoyed by teammates who have known only one Staal, Marc, for many years.

Marc will say something and "then Eric will just roll his eyes. Kind of tell him to beat it, that type of thing," said Rangers center Derek Stepanwith a laugh.

The two brothers don't sit next to each other. Probably by design.

"And that's in both rinks," Stepan said. "The practice rink, too."

"You can just see [their closeness] when Marc and Eric are in the same room together," said Stepan, who has visited with the Staals on multiple occasions during the offseason over the years and takes part in their charity pro-am golf tournament.

Before Marc signed his six-year extension with the Rangers in January 2015, there was talk that he might leave New York and join his brothers in Carolina. It never happened, but when the Hurricanes decided to move Eric at the trade deadline, there were few places to which he was willing to accept a trade. It came as zero surprise that New York was one of those places.

"It's something we've talked about in the past couple of months," Marc said. "It's neat to be a part of and be a part of playoff hockey. It was pretty cool getting dressed in Pitt [before] Game 1 and kind of pinching yourself because you are realizing you are doing it together. So it's been fun, and hopefully we can keep it going."

The Rangers, who are in a tough position now after getting blown out 5-0 at homein Game 4, head back to Pittsburgh for a must-win Game 5 Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.

After that, who knows?

Eric will be an unrestricted free agent this summer for the first time in his career. He's unlikely to remain with the Rangers, and while it's possible he could re-sign with the Hurricanes, it does appear as though the time has come and gone on that relationship.

So it looks likely that he will move on, and the storylines will revert to the "brothers against brothers" tales that described their intersections when they first came into the NHL.

They've been asked about playing with and against one another so often and for so long and yet there has seemingly never been a moment when they didn't embrace the idea of talking about how blood and ice are intertwined, and have been inexorably linked, for the Staal family.

Maybe that's because each brother has a self-awareness and an understanding that what they have experienced, what they have shared, is unique in pro sports. And a realization that these moments are fleeting and need to be embraced.

"It's not that normal, to be honest," Eric said. "It's special. You look around at other professional sports, and see it's just not something that happens all the time. And if it does it's for a cup of coffee or something that isn't as meaningful or as important. So it doesn't get old -- and I don't think it ever will."