- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal claims he didn't know it was his kid brother there along the boards with his head down, fighting another Carolina player for the puck. Things happen fast in a hockey game, everyone later sighed heavily and agreed. Eric just saw a player in a white shirt. And he hit him. Hard. The raw force of the collision is clear even from still images of that Feb. 22 check, not just the gasp of the crowd that comes across loud and clear in the YouTube video. The impact lifted Rangers defenseman Marc Staal off his feet, snapped back his head and sent him pinwheeling to the ice face down, with his helmet askew.
Nine months have passed. Marc still hasn't played this season because of post-concussion symptoms.
And nobody knows when he'll be back.
Still, Eric insists it's a reach to say that some dread over having to re-visit how he unintentionally injured his 24-year-old brother has anything to do with the season-long slump he was mired in by the time he pulled into the New York area last week. Carolina had a game against the New Jersey Devils and then a rematch with the Rangers for the first time since Marc couldn't play. Eric, the Canes' best player, has averaged 35.8 goals in his last six stellar seasons but he's on pace for just 18 or 19 this season.
So was that five-game scoreless streak he also brought to town (and stretched to seven by the time Rangers fans were done booing him Friday every time he touched the puck in Carolina's 5-1 loss at Madison Square Garden) really just a coincidence, as he claimed? Or was it proof of something people around the NHL were starting to wonder: Could it be there are two Staal boys stuck in limbo because of Marc's injury, not just one?
"He's a big, strong man -- this isn't a guy who's hiding in the corner; he'll answer your questions," no-nonsense Carolina coach Paul Maurice told New York reporters.
And again and again over the next four days, Eric did. Over and over, he insisted no, no, he isn't haunted or paralyzed by regrets.
Eric didn't try to sugarcoat his brother's feelings about the play, saying, "Obviously, I talked to him a lot. It's hard. ... He's upset about the hit, but he understands it's a hockey game, and things happen." Does Eric think differently about such body checks now? "No, not at all," he said. "It was unfortunate after the fact, but it's part of the game. You finish checks and you're physical. Sometimes things happen, and in his case he's been injured for a long time because of it. But he'll recover fully and will be back fine."
What was Staal, Carolina's team captain, supposed to say? He wasn't being callous, just consistent with the code of the game. "You can't admit any weakness or feelings; you just do your job and finish checks and play the same whether it's your brother out there or not," says Rangers defenseman Michael Sauer, whose older brother, Kurt, a Phoenix Coyotes defenseman, has played only one NHL game the past two seasons because of post-concussion symptoms.
Hockey rarely apologizes for the way it values tough guys, or the frontier justice system it's long had. But even so, the Staal case is an emotionally freighted new twist. Who had ever seen anything like this? A brother sidelining his own brother? Blood vs. blood. The other players and coaches on both teams -- not just the Staals -- still find the whole thing admittedly confusing. What should they do?
"It's definitely a weird situation because normally, if a guy took liberties with one of our star players like that, we'd key on him [next time we played]," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said this week, four days after Eric played at Madison Square Garden. "But this ... it's brothers. It's different, you know? Obviously, I don't think he wanted to hurt him, or meant to do it."
Could Callahan tell if Eric was playing any differently?
"Aw, I don't know -- it's hard to get inside another player's head, so I don't want to speak for him," Callahan said. "But, at the same time, I think it's got to be definitely weighing on him because, you know, his brother's out, and he caused it. I know that would affect me. I mean, how could it not?"
The Staal brothers were as close as peas in a pod while growing up with their two younger brothers, 23-year-old Jordan, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Jared, who is 21 and playing in Carolina's minor league system.
Until now, their family story unfurled like something of a sports fairy tale. The three oldest boys were first-round NHL draft picks, and Jared went in the second round of the 2008 entry draft. Eric has already won a Stanley Cup with Carolina and a gold medal with Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. Both he and Marc were All-Stars last season, and Jordan is considered a rising star. In many ways the Staals have become the unofficial first family of hockey in the active players division, anyway, taking over where the Sutters left off. All four Staals are blond, 6-foot-4 and so similar in looks and bearing that they can be difficult to tell apart. They're also justifiably proud about their family reputation for being what the Rangers' Sauer describes as, "Great guys and great leaders."
If landing four players in pro hockey was the end of their story, it'd be enough. But their upbringing evokes a touchstone of Canadian life that's the Canuck equivalent of how Americans romanticize fathers playing catch with their baseball-mad sons.
The Staal boys grew up on a farm in the almost make-believe sounding town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, playing hockey against each other on a makeshift backyard rink that their father, Henry, put together with whitewashed plywood for side boards, chicken wire instead of PlexiGlas and floodlights mounted on poles so they could play deep into the very cold nights.
That imagery -- boys playing pond hockey, like their fathers and generations before them all did -- is so central and classic in hockey lore, the NHL started its highly popular New Year's Day outdoor games because of it. And Nike asked for some of the Staal family home movies and built a few info-mercials around footage of their childhood rink.
"There was no better toy, for all of us," Jordan says in one of the spots.
The Staal boys go on to confess to trading a few kicks and shoves during those backyard games, and even to picking up a few scars. But when asked on camera if they'd ever had a hockey-related fistfight, they all start wagging their heads in unison. The answer was no. Never.
"I don't think we ever dropped the gloves," Eric says.
And yet, there he found himself last week, coming to New York knowing Marc was scheduled to travel to Boston sometime this week for a re-evaluation by Dr. Robert Cantu, the renowned concussion specialist who had ordered Marc to take a month off from physical activity because of his recurring symptoms.
Marc, who tried other doctors and acupuncture before, hasn't spoken with reporters since training camp, and he didn't surface to field any questions when Eric was in town. Someone close to the Rangers says it's just gotten "old" for Marc to have to answer the same questions every day -- 'How are you feeling now? How about today? Any better today?" -- when there was no news to report.
Marc does turn up at the practice facility now and then when reporters aren't present "just to talk a bit, see the boys -- he's still around," Sauer says.
Staal watches most Rangers home games from inside the dressing room rather than high above the rink like many scratched players do, and he was at the Garden on Friday. He had to hear the New York crowd jeering Eric, especially when Eric was involved in the two plays midway through the third period that turned what had been a taut 1-1 game into a 5-1 Rangers' rout.
First, Eric committed a high-sticking penalty that resulted in a power-play goal for the Rangers. Then he lost the ensuing faceoff at center ice and saw Brandon Dubinsky rifle in another shot, giving New York two goals in nine seconds.
The Canes' Maurice called it "the turning point" of the game.
It's impossible to prove that sequence was yet another case of Eric being uncharacteristically rattled by whatever psychological baggage he might be carrying. Callahan is right: It's hard to get inside a player's head. But Eric did speak before leaving New York about how he and Marc were able to get together during the week, calling it "an awesome couple of days spending time with him and spending time like normal families would."
And the very next night when Eric and the Hurricanes pulled into Pittsburgh to play brother Jordan and the Penguins, why ... maybe what happened next was just another coincidence heaped atop the rest.
With that rematch against the Rangers and reunion with Marc just 24 hours in his rearview mirror, Eric Staal scored a goal for the first time in three weeks.
When brothers collide: Could Hurricanes center Eric Staal be stuck in limbo because of the injury that has sidelined Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, his brother?