Commentary

Staal brothers now on the same path

Their orbits were mutually independent, but now Staals share the same sphere

Updated: November 22, 2013, 4:44 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Raleigh, N.C., -- The wooden Thomas the Train tracks and engines are scattered on the rug in the living room.

A hockey net, more than a little incongruous in this wooded neighborhood outside Raleigh, N.C., is parked at the end of the long, sloping driveway.

These are signs of life.

Young Parker Staal, all of 4 years old, still refuses to use both hands on his little hockey stick when he takes shots on his father, Eric, or when his uncle Jordan drops by.

When Eric Staal asks Parker who the Carolina Hurricanes are playing the answer is almost always the same: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That's as far as Parker's hockey universe extends.

In the basement, more signs of the complex nature of life, family, careers.

On the walls surrounding a red felt-covered pool table are framed pictures. There are two striking pictures of Parker and his younger brother, Levi, who will be 2 in December, as newborns taken against Carolina Hurricanes backdrops.

[+] EnlargeJordan Staal
Christopher Pasatieri/Getty ImagesUntil signing with the Canes, any success Jordan had against brother Eric was bittersweet.

In one photo, one of the boys, so tiny, is nestled in the palms of a pair of Hurricanes hockey gloves.

Eric jokes that if and when he and his wife, Tanya, have a third, they might have to get a picture done inside a Canes helmet.

On another wall is a picture taken at the 2003 draft.

The faces are familiar, although Eric jokes that hair tinting must have been "in" at the time. Dion Phaneuf, sitting to Eric's left in the picture, looks like he stepped from a Duran Duran concert poster. Thomas Vanek is there. So are Milan Lucic, Ryan Suter and one of brother Jordan's old teammates in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury.

The brothers, Eric and Jordan, chuckle at how such a photo came together, but it is a reminder of the passage of time and of the things that have brought these two brothers together in this house, in this market, on this team.

Eric, selected with the second overall pick in that 2003 draft, is in his 10th season with the Hurricanes. A Stanley Cup championship, an Olympic gold medal, a wife, children, a home in the woods -- these are all reminders of the distance traveled and the milestones reached since that picture was taken.

Three years later, Jordan was selected by Pittsburgh, also with the second overall pick. He, too, owns a Stanley Cup ring. He was a finalist for rookie of the year honors and later a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward. He, too, has a wife, Heather, and like Tanya, a native of the Staals' hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Now, two brothers whose impressive orbits were for years mutually independent of each other find themselves not at all by accident inhabiting the same sphere.

"You only get one career, one turn through this whole deal, and that's it," the elder Staal says, sitting at the kitchen table with the afternoon sun pouring into the spacious home. "Unless you hate your brother or hate your family, who wouldn't want this?"

The Staal brothers never played together growing up. Given that all four of the Staal brothers played major junior hockey starting in their mid-teens, there was never all that much overlap in terms of playing together (although Jared, the youngest, did play one year with Marc in Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League).

Instead, the family connections have, until recently, been very much relegated to the offseason. The three older brothers have established a waterfront retreat where they spend their summers, each brother owning a lakefront "camp" in a line of three, the space open, one property blending seamless to the next. But the summers are short, especially when teams' playoff runs extend into June.

For Jordan, blue-sky discussions about what it would be like for the brothers to play together in the NHL took on new meaning after his nephew, Parker, was born. He would see Eric's growing family only sporadically during the season and missed being part of the changes as Parker moved from infant to toddler and Levi arrived on the scene.

A year before reaching free agency, Jordan was offered a contract extension by the Penguins. He said he knew that if he accepted and stayed in Pittsburgh that any hopes of playing with Eric, or Marc for that matter, would effectively be done. So he declined the offer and the dye was cast. At the 2012 draft in Pittsburgh, GM Ray Shero announced Jordan had been traded to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, prospect Brian Dumoulin and a first-round pick.

Jordan remembers asking his parents what they would think if there was a chance for him to play with Eric and possibly Jared, who has been in Carolina's farm system and currently plays with the Hurricanes' American Hockey League farm team. Well, they noted, it would be nice.

What else needed to be said?

And if there is an easy way to willingly walk away from a chance to play long-term with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Fleury, this was it.

If such a move has meant certain trade-offs, they have been made without complaint.

And, in the end, isn't that life?

A series of choices with few guarantees?

For instance, Jordan and the Penguins made the playoffs every year he was there. He was a finalist for the rookie of the year in 2007 and was a dominant figure in the Penguins' 2009 run to a Stanley Cup championship. It's not the same in Carolina.

"It's definitely different. There's that element of constantly trying to sell the game," Jordan said.

He knows his brother has embraced that life, being the captain of the Hurricanes and knowing that the job isn't just about playing the game, backchecking and scoring, but about creating a bond between a fan base and the team and maintaining that bond.

In coming to Carolina and then signing a 10-year, $60 million contract extension that kicks in this season, Jordan embraced that role too, agreeing implicitly to work shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother in keeping the game alive and vibrant here in North Carolina.

"It's a different challenge and it's a new challenge," Jordan said.

But, he notes, when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2006, the Penguins weren't selling out games, either.

"And there was not a lot of buzz around the team," he said.

But that changed, and Jordan said he can see the same evolution happening in Carolina.

"When we're playing our best hockey, we're selling the game," Jordan said.

And there's the rub, no?

When the Canes are playing their best hockey it's largely because the Staal brothers have or are leading the way. It's more than just those two, but they have become the face of the franchise; two players, one name. It's hard to get beyond that dynamic even though winning is never as simple as whether two guys are playing well.

Last season, with the lockout and injuries to starting netminder Cam Ward, the Hurricanes fell out of the playoff hunt in the second half of the shortened season and ended up finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Then, Eric suffered a significant knee injury playing for Canada at the World Championships.

Jordan's transition to Carolina wasn't as seamless as he'd hoped, as he scored 10 times and was a minus-18.

Both were invited to Canada's Olympic orientation camp and there was optimism that this current season would mark a step forward.

It has been slow to happen, and various sources have told ESPN.com that the chances of both Staals making the team have been dampened by slow offensive starts, and the Canes' likewise up-and-down play through the first quarter. The injury-plagued Hurricanes had been held to two or fewer goals in 11 of their previous 13 games.

The brothers have had to take stock of their own games and try to manage the expectations they put on themselves and the expectations that have come externally.

"I think we've had to [temper expectations] quite a bit," said Eric, who had just five goals in 22 games this season. "We both put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform."

"Sometimes the expectation you have of yourself is almost too big and you need to take a deep breath and step back a bit," the captain added.

Jordan, with three goals and four assists through the first quarter of the season, has found himself having to take similar stock of himself, not dwelling on trying to do too much.

"I'm learning that. It's different," he said. "For myself, that mental stability where I can come back and play the way I can and help the team, it's been a learning process for myself."

General manager Jim Rutherford, the man who authored the Carolina reunion, believes the two are on the right path.

"Jordan has adapted better in his second year," he told ESPN.com. "I believe Jordan has taken his game to another level this year."

The veteran GM acknowledged that Eric isn't off to the kind of start they would have expected. But he also noted that Eric is coming off a significant knee injury.

"He was just determined that he was going to be starting training camp, and that was that," Rutherford said. "They are two character guys that just want to win."

As for the brother dynamic, Rutherford said he's never had any concerns it wouldn't work out. In fact, he doesn't view them as two guys with the same name but sees two big centers who make other teams' lives difficult.

"I see them as two guys who have the same upbringing; that's a key factor," he said. "But after that, I just see them as Jordan and Eric."

Jordan and his wife, Heather, live five minutes away.

The families are frequent visitors at each other's homes.

Does Eric ever just drop the boys off on Jordan's doorstep and flee?

Both laugh. Not quite.

"Usually they give us fair warning regarding a visit," Jordan said.

The Sedins, Henrik and Daniel, have made a career of being together, becoming one unit, almost one persona. But it's different when you have two high-profile players such as the Staals, each of whom has made their mark on their own, suddenly thrust together.

[+] EnlargeEric Staal
Christopher Pasatieri/Getty ImagesUnfortunately for Eric Staal, it's anything but a done deal that he and brother Jordan will make the Canadian Olympic squad.

It's been different than they imagined, even though it's hard to pinpoint in just what way.

"It's not only playing together, it's family," Jordan explained. "We can come over here and just hang out and play with the kids."

And at some point, when and if Jordan and his wife have children, that connection will grow even more meaningful.

Until then, there are frequent visits, although Jordan joked they are quick to hand off the nephews if there's a diaper issue. On off days or after practice, the brothers find themselves talking about the game, and specifically how the team needs to get better and how they can help that process. Sometimes it's just a gripe session, but then the conversation will veer off to what Parker is learning in school or Levi's latest achievements.

In the end, though, the fabric of the family will continue to be defined by the game. It can't be just about sneaking into the playoffs, Eric said. It has to be about consistently being a playoff team, consistently in the mix to go on a long run, something the fans have been accustomed to here.

"We're building towards that," he said. "But we have a long way to go."

There is enough of a history in Raleigh that the fan base appreciates that once this team gets to the playoffs, anything can happen, that winning is always a possibility. If they get there.

"That's just the feeling around here," Eric said.

Frustrating?

Of course. Go four years in a row without stepping into a playoff series and it would drive anyone crazy, let alone someone as keenly competitive as Eric is.

"No question," he said. "Jim's done a good job of adding some good personnel, some good players, now it's about performing and staying healthy."

The last time the Canes were in the playoffs was 2009, when they faced Jordan's Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. That spring was, in some ways, a defining moment for the family. Marc, Jordan and Eric had played each other many times during the regular season. The Penguins had defeated Marc's New York Rangers in the second round of the 2008 playoffs in Marc's rookie season. But this was different.

"At the end of the day, whoever was losing the series, the other was going to play for the Stanley Cup," Eric said.

For one, it would be a tremendous opportunity lost, and for the other a tremendous opportunity obtained. The Penguins swept the Canes, and the two Staal brothers went head-to-head almost every night. Eric joked that by the way Jordan kept mugging him, there could have been a penalty called on pretty much every shift. But it was a bittersweet time for both.

The Canes' captain was part of Carolina's championship run in 2006 and understood the chance that was at hand for his brother.

"You hate losing. It stings," Eric said. But if there was a silver lining, it was understanding the opportunity that awaited Jordan.

At the same time, watching as the Penguins battled back from a 2-0 and 3-2 series deficit to win Game 7 in Joe Louis Arena, Eric wondered how the Canes would have fared, and wondered what might have been.

"I've been on the losing side of series like that," Jordan said. "And you know the feeling, and it sucks. So it was kind of a bittersweet feeling because at the back of your mind you knew what Eric was going through."

The moment reminds us of the family dynamics that the Niedermayer brothers, Scott and Rob, endured when Scott's New Jersey Devils defeated Rob's Anaheim Ducks in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. Four years later, Scott would take the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman and hand the trophy to Rob after the Ducks defeated Ottawa in the 2007 Cup finals. Scott recounted the strong feelings of both beating his brother and then winning a championship with him at the recent Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Toronto.

It was an emotional speech that more than resonates with the Staal brothers; it is a mantra of sorts, the idea that one day they will share such a moment.

"You think, how cool is that?" Eric said of the Niedermayers' journey.

It's not something that will happen easily, if at all. But now that they are here, now, sharing the same orbit, well, who knows?

And at the very least, the pressure is off young Parker Staal to figure out which team his uncle Jordan is playing for. That's the easy one.

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