‘Never easy ending a brother’s season’: Inside the Staal family drama
RALEIGH, N.C. — Parents typically don’t want to see their children be miserable. Which makes the Eastern Conference final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs a very stressful time for Henry and Linda Staal.
“It’s tough for them. They’ve been cheering for all of us all year,” Florida Panthers defenseman Marc Staal said.
“Now one of us is going to be very disappointed at the end of this. Or two of us.”
Marc, 36, and his brother Eric, a 38-year-old forward, are teammates on the Panthers. Jordan Staal, 34, is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, whom the Panthers are facing in the conference final.
“In maybe the best- and worst-case scenario, here we are,” Eric Staal said.
It’s the first time since 1992 that the NHL has had three siblings face each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Back then, it was Brent Sutter of the Chicago Blackhawks against brothers Rich and Ron Sutter of the St. Louis Blues.
Now, it’s Staals vs. Staal.
“It’s a little bit surreal, obviously. Playing as long as we have and now we both get the opportunity to get to the Stanley Cup Final,” Marc Staal said. “It’ll be a lot of fun. I mean, we spent our whole careers playing against each other and then with each other. Now, the stakes are just a little bit higher.”
Eric Staal (Carolina, 2006) and Jordan Staal (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009) are previous Stanley Cup winners. Marc Staal played for the Cup once, losing with the New York Rangers in 2014.
Different combinations of the Staals have played against each other in the playoffs before this season. Marc’s Rangers met Jordan’s Penguins in 2008 and then Jordan’s Hurricanes in 2020. When Eric was still with the Hurricanes, his bid for a second Stanley Cup in 2009 ended in the conference final against Jordan’s Penguins, before Jordan won his first ring in the next round.
Jordan remembers meeting Eric in the postgame handshake line in 2009 — a meeting they’ll have again 14 years later.
“It’s not easy. It’s never easy ending a brother’s season, but somebody’s got to win,” Jordan said. “I don’t want to be the one on the other side of it, so I’m going to do everything I can. It’s part of playoff hockey.”
As Marc said, the stakes are higher now for the Staal family. The brothers are nearing the ends of their NHL journeys. Eric just completed his 18th regular season and is on his fourth team in three seasons. Marc just completed his 16th season.
“I was told at 18 years old by [former Hurricane] Ron Francis that this is going to go fast,” Eric said. “Enjoy every moment. I remember those words because it really has gone fast. I’ve witnessed and been through a lot of ups, a lot of downs, but the joy of the game has always been burning inside me. Sometimes it didn’t always look that way. But I’m where I am at this point for a reason.”
With the stakes high and a competitive series between the Panthers and Hurricanes — one that already produced a quadruple-overtime Game 1 — Henry and Linda Staal won’t watch the games in person.
“My dad and mom are very excited but very wary as well,” Jordan said. “I think they’ll be hiding from you guys in the basement until the series is done.”
Their brother Jared Staal, a 32-year-old assistant coach with Florida’s AHL affiliate the Charlotte Checkers, is expected to attend the series.
“He’s 100 percent pro-Panthers,” Eric Staal joked.
And their folks?
“I think my parents are pro-Panthers, too,” he said. “They just won’t tell you that.”
HENRY STAAL HAD a patch of land near the driveway at his house in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He flooded it one winter so his four boys could skate.
They skated … and skated … and skated some more. He couldn’t get them off the ice.
So he expanded that patch of ice into a full homemade rink. There were flood lights on the sides that illuminated the ice at night. Chicken wire spanned the top of the boards in an attempt to keep pucks inside the rink. Alas, as the Staal brothers got older and stronger, more and more pucks would fly into his neighbors’ turnips.
The 2-on-2 games the brothers played were spirited, loud and frequently brutal.
“We’ve definitely had some moments where the sticks went flying. Where there were some stitches and some fights,” Eric said. “There were some days where mom had to tell everyone ‘enough’ and send us to our rooms. But we always figured it out after that.”
On the ice, it was Marc and Jordan vs. Eric and Jared during the brothers’ daily series of 2-on-2 games on their outdoor rink. Off the ice, Marc roomed with Eric across the hall from Jordan and Jarred.
“We’re competitive in everything we do. It doesn’t matter what,” Marc said. “Playing darts, playing golf, going fishing, whatever.”
Who handles losing the worst?
“Probably Eric. He probably takes it the worst.”
Eric said those competitive games were the spark that led to this current moment: Three established NHL players, battling for the chance to raise the Stanley Cup.
“We weren’t totally forced or made to do it by our parents,” he said. “We just went out there because we loved it and just loved competing with each other and loved the game itself.”
Over the years, those battles moved from the makeshift rink to NHL ice. The Hurricanes drafted Eric second overall in 2003. Marc was taken 12th overall by the Rangers in 2005. Jordan was taken second overall by the Penguins in 2006. Jared was selected 49th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008. He only appeared in two NHL games, with Carolina in 2012-13.
Eric, Marc and Jordan have played against each other in the regular season throughout their careers.
“I think once we get into those games, it all just kind of becomes a blur and next thing you know, you might be just kind of standing in front of your brother and stuff like that,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t really change how I’m going to do things out there. I’m sure the same for them.”
Marc said the brothers don’t engage in much trash talk, or really any talk, on the ice. They just know they’re lining up against a familiar face.
“When your brother’s on the ice, you know he’s on the ice,” he said. “When you’re battling in front of the net, you know it’s him in front of the net, you know what I mean? It’s always a lot of fun. This series will be no different.”
But the series is a little different than most matchups. Not just because it’s the conference final, but because it involves Eric, Jordan and Raleigh, North Carolina.
A HURRICANES FAN held up a sign during Game 1 of the conference final on Thursday night that read: “ALL THE STAALS UNDER ONE ROOF, BUT THIS IS JORDO’S HOUSE”
Jordan Staal has played 11 seasons with the Hurricanes, totaling 742 games. He was the team’s co-captain in 2017-18 and has served as its captain from 2019-20 through this season.
“This is a family here to me now,” Jordan said.
There are two other formers Hurricanes captains involved in this series. Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour wore the ‘C’ from 2005 to 2010, captaining the franchise’s only Stanley Cup winner. His successor was Eric Staal, who played 909 games with the franchise over 12 seasons.
It was an awkward time. The Hurricanes were about to go nine seasons without a playoff appearance. Brind’Amour was playing what would be his last NHL season. GM Jim Rutherford said it was time to hand the captaincy “to the guy who is going to lead this team on for the several years.”
Brind’Amour had the chance to veto the change in captaincy. He didn’t.
“When they made that transition, he just said it was one of those things,” Eric said of Brind’Amour. “That I should embrace it and we’ll get through it together. And we did.
“Our relationship was very close. Rod is one of those people that has a true care for you individually. And for me, as a young guy, I was honestly trying to learn as much as I could from a guy like him.”
Eric and Jordan were teammates until the elder Staal was traded to the Rangers in 2016 — joining Marc in New York — and then signed a free agent deal with the Minnesota Wild the following offseason.
Their photos line the walls of the Hurricanes’ press level. Eric celebrating a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes. Jordan celebrating many years of playoff success, if not a championship, in Raleigh.
“Jordan came here when I was here and we went through a lot together. He’s earned the right to see the change that’s occurred here and the transformation of where they are,” Eric said. “They’ve had a great season, they’ve had a great run, they’ve played really well and he’s a big part of that. I’m proud of him for that.”
Marc and Eric knew there was a real possibility that they could meet Jordan and the Hurricanes in the playoffs when the Panthers were making their late-season push. “We could have played them in the first round. And then we were watching them go through the other side [of the bracket], so we knew it was a possibility once we faced Toronto,” Marc said.
On the eve of Game 1, there were a few messages bouncing between the brothers on their text chain. “We were texting about the parameters of the series. A little bit how we’re going to do things,” Jordan said.
In the playoffs, players do more bonding with their teammates, staying together as a group. The Staals established that there would be no fraternizing with the enemy during the series.
There weren’t any good luck wishes. The text chain has gone silent for the foreseeable future.
“I probably won’t see them a ton outside of the rink, which is just fine with me. No texting on game days,” Jordan said. “All of us are just excited to be here and be part of it.”
The stakes are high. One or more of Henry and Linda’s boys will be emotionally crushed in the near future. But years later, there will be memories of an unusual moment in NHL sibling rivalry and a surreal one for three brothers.
“It’s stuff we’ll never forget. It’s memories we’ll always have,” Jordan said. “We’re blessed to be where we’re at as a family. It’s just a really cool thing.
“I haven’t played a playoff series against a bro for a while. We’ll kiss and make up after.”