Where hockey players grow

THUNDER BAY — From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The farmyard rink is pretty much gone now. The chain-link fencing that kept stray pucks in play and the wooden poles that held the outdoor lights have been taken down. Only a few rotten boards remain on the rich northwestern Ontario soil that lies near the slope of Candy Mountain.

"There's really nothing there," Linda Staal says of the rink her husband built. Besides, she has a couple of sick boys at home. Sore throats. "Let's go somewhere else for a coffee," she suggests.

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And with that, Henry and Linda Staal, parents to a Stanley Cup champion, two world champions, a two-time world junior champion and a promising forward in the Ontario Hockey League, sit down with a reporter in a setting so suited to their lifestyle it could be put to canvas and entitled Canadian Gothic.

We meet at a Tim Hortons. The only thing missing is a hockey stick clenched upright in Henry Staal's right hand.

You've no doubt heard of Eric Staal, the imposing forward for the Carolina Hurricanes, and of Jordan Staal, who scored 29 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins and was nominated for the NHL's Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Soon you will hear of Marc Staal, a defenceman for the New York Rangers, and soon after that you will hear of Jared Staal, who could complete the run by becoming the fourth son to be drafted in the first round by an NHL team.

But how did this happen? How did two parents of Dutch descent produce four boys who took their backyard games on a rink built of scraps to some of the biggest, sold-out arenas around the world?

Are Henry and Linda Staal simply four-time winners in the great genetic lottery? Was it something in the water they drank? The food they ate? The air they breathed?

"It's a question we've asked ourselves," Henry says between sips of coffee. "We can't figure it out."

"Nobody in our family is very athletic," Linda adds.

"What?" Henry yelps, as if wounded to the core. "Holy cow."

Henry Staal is an athletic-looking man at 49 even if his on-ice accomplishments pale in comparison to his sons'. His forearms are thick and tanned; the result of working 350 of the 500 acres he owns just outside Thunder Bay off Highway 61.

At the height of the sod farming business, Henry works long hours, from 7 a.m. to as long as it takes. Friends say they've seen Henry still making sod deliveries at 7 p.m.

For this big night out at Tim Hortons, Henry wears a red Team Canada T-shirt that fits tight across his muscled shoulders and loose around his stomach. He acknowledges he is still six foot, 185 pounds; the height and playing weight of his days with the Lakehead University Norwesters hockey team where he wore No. 12, the number Eric wears with the Hurricanes.

Linda Staal, 47, is lean and lanky with her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She used to skate with her sons on the rink that Henry built by scouring the city and picking up used boards and pieces. She jokes about her husband's playing days and happily notes that her height has been passed along to her sons.

"I have two brothers who are 6 foot 4," Linda says. "So they got something from me."

"She's also got two brothers who are 5 foot 8," interjects a grinning Henry.

But back to the question: how did it happen? How did the Staals join the Sutters as our nation's leading producers of Grade-A hockey talent?

Let's start with the work ethic that was DNA'ed into the Staals by Henry's father, who immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the 1950s, and by Linda's father, John VanderZwaag, who did the same thing in search of a better life for his family.

Both the Staals and the VanderZwaags believed in toiling for their rewards. They came from small towns and the fathers worked two jobs to support their wife and children.

"My dad worked with a ministry. He did landscaping full-time in the summer then worked with an oil company in the winter," Henry said. "Linda's dad worked in construction and ran a dairy farm. That was in the old days when you pitched bales of hay by hand. He put in a lot of man hours."

As a boy, Henry did so much work on the family sod farm that taking time off left him with pangs of guilt.

"We'd drive by a construction site and it was, 'Those guys are working. I should be, too.' That's how I was brought up. That was very strongly engrained in both Linda and I."

Henry and Linda went to the same Christian Reformed church as kids and even attended the same grade school but it wasn't until high school that they began to notice each other. Linda and one of her sisters were hockey fans; the sister's boyfriend and Henry were teammates. They ended up double dating. Nine years later, Henry and Linda were married.

When the boys began popping up like pineapple weeds, they too were assigned to the land. The deal was each son would receive a $1-an-hour raise every summer for laying sod and carrying rolls. Jordan has said he was driving a tractor when he was six years old and making $5 an hour. When he signed with Pittsburgh, he was no longer obligated to plow sod.

While summer was labour intensive, winter was all about hockey. At home, in the house, in the basement, the hallways, after school, at night, hockey was the other staple of the Staals's life.

"We didn't have any furniture in the living room," Linda says. "The kids had those little nets and played inside all the time."

"Do you have living-room furniture now?" Linda is asked.

"We got some five or six years ago. It was donated by [Henry's]brother."

The Staals made plenty of sacrifices for the boys, who played their minor hockey at the Nor West Arena, which was recently dubbed Home of the Staal Brothers and bears their first names on the outdoor sign.

Building a rink on the sod farm was the most obvious expression of the Staals' love for their kids and hockey. The boys, along with their cousins and friends, would play for hours on end. Sometimes, it was simply 2-on-2; brothers against brothers.

The best story of all the farmyard hockey tales has to do with the time Henry took the boys to one of Eric's minor-hockey tournaments in Minneapolis. The Fox television network was experimenting with those goofy glowing pucks and Marc Staal found one that had been flipped over the glass and under some seats.

Happily, the Staal boys took the puck home and used it under the lights of their own arena.

"They lost it in the snow once," Henry says. "The dog found it and chewed it up."

"I still have the puck," Linda adds.

Building a full-sized rink with boards and lights was one thing; travelling the country for their boys' games and tournaments was a whole other issue. Henry and Linda flew to some games, drove to others and ran up unhealthy bills with four growing boys all playing on the best available teams.

"We made sacrifices, like this one time," says Henry, who tells of how Marc was playing in Fort Frances, Jordan was playing in Winnipeg and Jared was playing in Kenora, all at the same time. Henry and Linda split up and drove west only to be slowed by car accidents, snowstorms and delays.

At one point, Henry returned to Thunder Bay only to be coaxed back out by another parent who knew a back-road route to Winnipeg. Henry says it took 16 hours to get to the arena five minutes before the puck was dropped. Linda needed 12 hours to complete the usual five-hour drive to Kenora.

"I called Linda and said, 'This is insane,'ƒ|" Henry recalls with a shake of his head.

But they did it, not because they figured the boys would make it to the NHL but because hockey was in their blood thanks to Henry and his modest career.

The websites say Henry Staal still ranks 13th in career scoring at Lakehead. He smiles at that and admits when he plays with his sons they're only too happy to embarrass him with their offensive artistry.

"I played with Henry for one year at LU," says Greg Ross, who still lives in Thunder Bay and occasionally sees his former teammate. "His boys' backhands might be harder than his slap shot. ¡K But Henry was a real workhorse. He spent a lot of time against the other team's better players. He never wanted to be the big man; he was too humble."

The Staal boys used to watch their father when he played in men's leagues. They loved that their dad never lectured them on making it to the NHL, only about helping their team win. That was all that mattered.

Of course, once Eric and Jordan made it, the contracts offered and the dollars paid seemed ridiculously extravagant. Henry and Linda were far from poor but having two millionaire sons took a bit of getting used to.

Most everyone in Thunder Bay either recognized Henry and Linda or saw the last name and remarked, "Are you any relation to Eric Staal?" Suddenly, they were A-list celebrities.

"The funny thing was we never talked about going to the NHL," Linda says. "We usually talked about school."

Derek Geddes coached Eric, Marc and Jordan with the Thunder Bay Kings AAA organization. His recollections of the Staals are of two loving parents who took in as many of their son's games as possible without complaining or criticizing.

"They're ideal parents. You never heard boo out of them," says Geddes, who still coaches with the Kings. "If there were any parents acting up, [Henry and Linda]would put them in their place. You never saw them push their kids."

In the next few days, the Staals will be talking about their travel plans for the coming winter. As they have for years now, Henry and Linda will sit at their kitchen table in front of a large sheet of paper and write down the names of their four boys.

Underneath each son's name will be the schedule of the team he plays for; home and away. The trick is to try and see as many games as possible on one trip before Christmas and on the two or three junkets after. It's not an easy task since Marc has yet to make Rangers and, if he does, his team will play division rival Pittsburgh eight times.

"Those games are hard to watch," says Linda, who has watched Eric versus Jordan enough to know.

"Those games are not good," Henry adds.

Still, the parents will be there because they've always been there; because the love invested in the Staal brothers is every bit as important as the grandparents' work habits, the father's skating ability, the mother's height or even the rink where they would pretend to play for the Stanley Cup until one day Eric brought it home for real.

That's how it happened for the Staal boys: they had good stock, good fortune and two down-to-earth parents to push them, but not so much when it came to hockey. As explanations go, that will have to do. Certainly, it's enough for Henry and Linda.

"I know there are a lot of parents who want their kids to play in the NHL. We weren't that way," Henry says matter of factly. "Maybe that was best."

Yeah, that was best.

The Staal clan

Henry Staal

49. Played for Lakehead University Norwesters from 1978-83, scored 45 goals and 55 assists. Played on a line with Vince Frivia and Norm Fullum

Eric Staal

22, 6 foot 4, 205 pounds, centre. Won a Stanley Cup and a world championship, Carolina's first-round pick (second overall) in 2003. Scored 75 goals the past two NHL seasons

Marc Staal

20, 6 foot 3, 196 pounds, defenceman. Won gold at the 2006 and 2007 world junior championships and chosen the 2006 tournament's top defenceman. New York Rangers' first-round pick (12th overall) in 2005

Jordan Staal

19 on Monday, 6 foot 4, 215 pounds, centre. Won a world championship and was a Calder Trophy candidate after scoring 29 goals. Pittsburgh's first-round pick (second overall) in 2006

Jared Staal

17. Forward. Eligible for the 2008 entry draft. Plays with Sudbury Wolves of OHL