- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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"He said, 'You're next buddy.' That was pretty special," Marc Staal said.
It would be special in so many ways if it happened over the next fortnight, because it would mean a third Staal family member would raise Lord Stanley's trophy and it would be the ultimate bookend to what began as a horrifying experience more than a year ago.
It was March 5, 2013, that Staal took a slapshot to his right eye; his instant reaction still painful for anybody to watch to this day, his legs kicking in panicked agony.
To have traveled all the way to a Cup finals in that short time span makes what is happening now all the more incredible.
"Obviously with Marc's situation and the adversity that he's had to deal with the last two years, physically and mentally, it's even more rewarding to see him play as well as he is and to see him be a huge contributor for their team," big brother Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes told ESPN.com on Thursday. "There were some scary moments, some scary times, for him personally. I know he had some dark days, some tough days. There were ups and downs for a little while, not knowing what was going to happen and how his eye was going to respond to certain treatment, to certain drops. It was definitely really hard. I'm just amazed at how he's handled all that and gotten through it, and back to playing as well as he is. It would be huge if they could pull it off and get it done, it would be so rewarding for him."
In his seventh NHL season, the 27-year-old New York Rangers blueliner is as excited to be in his first Stanley Cup finals as his brothers were when they first got there, but with the added context of knowing how amazing it is that he's even playing after what happen two years ago.
And so Marc Staal is taking it all in as the Rangers try to upset the Los Angeles Kings in the Cup finals. It's not just a hockey experience, but a life experience.
"You certainly learn to appreciate health and the game [more] than you did before," said Marc Staal, who also battled concussion issues the past two years. "I played pretty much my whole career with nothing [no injuries], then I run into a couple of years like that. You definitely learn to appreciate the game and your health. Now to get a chance in the finals, it doesn't get any better than that."
Back in March 2013, about the last thought on his mind was one day playing in a Cup finals. Just playing again was paramount. Or even seeing again from that right eye.
"A week later, I went into the doctor's office and he told me it would never be 100 percent again," Marc Staal said. "That was probably the hardest day. You go back home, you're laying there and you're like, 'Holy crap.' But every day after that it was improving and I was seeing more. Maybe six weeks after it happened I skated again, I took my first one-timer and I was like, 'All right, I can still see and hit a puck. I'm moving in the right direction.'"
It was awfully tough on his wife, as one might imagine.
"Yes, she didn't sleep the first night or two," Marc Staal said.
His wife stayed up those first two nights so that every 20 to 25 minutes she could wipe away the blood that was trickling from his right eye.
"It was a tough one, easily the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with," Marc Staal said.
But here he is, back to being a dependable force on the Blueshirts' blue line. His vision won't ever be what it was, but he's learned to work with what he has got.
"It's where it's going to be for the rest of my life," Marc Staal said. "As far as seeing, it's different, but it's something I've adjusted to. It doesn't affect me in a game."
We asked an assistant coach on one of the three teams that faced the Rangers in these playoffs how he felt Marc Staal looked out there against their team.
"He was a top, all-around defenseman against us," said the assistant coach. "If he was ever off before [the series], he was certainly back against us. He was capable of doing everything: big body, smarts, good range. Not big offensive numbers but he can move the puck. He's a really good player and he's playing again now like a really good player."
The pride in Eric Staal's voice watching his brother return to form is clear-as-day evident over the phone. He has kept in regular contact with Marc Staal during the playoffs, offering any advice his brother needs.
"We text here and there; I haven't spoken to him yet today," Eric Staal said. "But we've kept in touch throughout the playoffs. Jordan and I were actually at this place in New York one night. We were meeting with a trainer and we saw Marc. He was very focused, but still fun to see him nonetheless.
"A lot of it is 'enjoy the ride' and that's what we've said to him," added Eric Staal. "He's done that so far. He's played real well. It's been fun to watch him play as well as he has."
What advice from his Cup-winning brothers has stuck the most with Marc Staal?
"They said the same things everyone says, 'Enjoy it, but you don't know when the opportunity is going to come to do it again,'" Marc Staal said. "Eric won in his second year in the league and hasn't been back since. He hasn't been back to the playoffs in seven years. You never know what lies ahead; you have to take advantage of it when you get here."
The solidarity between the brothers couldn't be more evident than when Eric Staal and Jordan Staal decided to don visors in the aftermath of Marc Staal's scary incident. No-brainer, Eric Staal now says.
"To be honest, it was just the fact that we were all going through it together," said the Hurricanes captain. "We were getting updates as far as what Marc was dealing with, there were some scary moments where we thought, 'Hey, he might not ever play again.' So we kind of looked at each other and were like, 'It makes no sense for us not to have these on.' After seeing and feeling what Marc was going through as a family, we thought, 'Why risk it?' There's no point. And it's been good, I'm glad we did it."
Now all that's missing is a third Cup ring for the Staal clan from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
"Marc has just handled this so well and responded the only way I know he would," said Eric Staal. "It's been fun to watch him succeed. Just hope he can do it all the way."
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