No ordinary day in Thunder Bay

Updated: August 16, 2006, 2:31 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

THUNDER BAY, Ontario -- The Stanley Cup isn't due to arrive at Thunder Bay's waterfront for another hour and already the line of fans awaiting its arrival on this sunny Thursday morning stretches some 200 deep across the park.

Eric Staal
Gary MoskalykIt just wouldn't be a visit to Thunder Bay if Eric Staal didn't share Lord Stanley with the sod cutter.

David Adamson, 9, and his grandmother, Laura Shannon, have the distinction of being at the head of that line. A surprisingly chilly wind blowing west off Lake Superior seems to suck the heat out of the early-morning sun, but Adamson remains upbeat even though he and his grandmother have been at the park since 7 a.m. -- three hours in advance of the expected arrival of hometown hero Eric Staal and the Cup.

Adamson is just learning to play hockey and hopes someday soon to skate with Staal at a local event.

Directly behind the pair is a group that has driven more than two hours from the lumber town of Atikoken, west of Thunder Bay, to share in Staal's big day.

A ripple goes through the crowd when someone hears Staal announce on a local radio show that he's leaving the family's sod farm outside of town. He's on his way. Someone in line suggests it's just like waiting for Santa Claus. He might not be far off.


Close is a relative thing here in Thunder Bay, 860 miles northwest of Toronto. The local AAA minor hockey teams, teams that include the youngest Staal, 15-year-old Jared, play in a league that includes teams from Winnipeg, some seven hours away.

Staal's father, Henry, recalls regularly making the 14-hour journey to Peterborough, Ontario, to watch Eric and then Jordan, 17, play major junior hockey. Often he (and wife Linda, if she was making the trip) would leave at 4 a.m. on a Thursday to attend that evening's game, sometimes running through the parking lot in time for the opening faceoff.

"Travel, travel, travel, pay, pay, pay," Henry says, repeating the mantra of hockey families throughout this northern community.


By the time Eric Staal rolls into the parking area shortly before 10 a.m., the crowd has swelled into the thousands and more continue to arrive every moment. Cars are being abandoned on a nearby overpass and volunteers try to keep the traffic moving and the lines organized.

Players from the local AAA midget team are on hand to try to help.

"This is unbelievable," says midget coach and high school teacher David Olenik, gazing out over the throng. "They might live 80 more years and never see this again."

Staal is taken aback both by the size of the crowd and the fact that many have now been waiting since shortly after dawn.

"Oh, no, that's early," the soft-spoken winger says.


Joining Staal on this adventure are three former teammates from his days in Peterborough. Mike Ramsay, James Edgar and Mark Flood have closely followed Staal's meteoric rise from awkward, skinny NHL rookie in 2003-04 to premier player and the NHL's leading playoff scorer this past spring.

There is no surprise at how much Staal has accomplished in such a short time, says Edgar, who has been playing university hockey in Canada since his junior days. "Not for a guy that works that hard."

Rules of the Cup
As keeper of the Stanley Cup, Walt Neubrand may well have the coolest job in the world, hanging out at Steve Yzerman's cottage, hiking up the Hollywood Hills to the Hollywood sign with Luc Robitaille and dropping in on Aerosmith with Jay Pandolfo. But the yin to the yang of this job is that he is the one thing that separates the Cup from chaos, loss and destruction.

Take this week -- 13 different airports.

At the crack of dawn the next morning, Neubrand will find that the charter jet sent by Staal's linemate Erik Cole from New York state won't accommodate the Cup's blue rectangular carrying case, adding to the already significant organizational burden Neubrand faces on a daily basis.

Of course, this will all be a walk in the park compared to two summers ago, when Neubrand arrived in Fort St. John, British Columbia, from Vancouver only to discover the Cup had not. It had been off-loaded in Vancouver when the flight was found to be overweight.

"All my buddies started calling. 'Ha, sucker, you lost the Cup.' I didn't lose it," insists the seventh grade teacher from Mississauga who's been handling the Cup for nine years.

So, here are the rules when the Cup comes to visit. No casinos, no strip clubs.

"Just any place that would make the Cup look undignified," says Neubrand. "If you take it to those kinds of places, it just cheapens it. It's like royalty or a religious leader. And you wouldn't find them in places like that."

Sources tell ESPN.com only one player has ever had his stay with the Cup cut short because of inappropriate behavior. Detroit netminder Dominik Hasek, in spite of warnings, tossed the Cup into his pool in the Czech Republic. The Cup was fished out, dried off and taken away in the middle of the afternoon.

-- Scott Burnside

It is a special day for all three. They played together for just two years as teenagers yet the bond forged by those moments, the bond forged by the game, has led them here to a firsthand view of the ultimate hockey reward. It is, in some ways, a great lesson in the power of friendship as much as the power of the game.


Time passes and the line doesn't diminish, it grows. By the end of the morning's event, local officials will put the number at between 4,500 and 5,000. Watching the proceedings with a smile is Norm Robert, the man who first scouted Staal before the Peterborough Petes drafted him in the first round of the junior draft in 2000.

Robert recalls how he and GM Jeff Twohey woke Staal's minor hockey coach Darryl Blazino at midnight the night before the draft so they could reassure themselves he was the right kid. Even then, the rail-thin, 5-foot-10, 145-pound 16-year-old looked out of place in his rookie year in junior, just as he did in his rookie NHL season.

"But lo and behold," Robert says with a smile.

Robert also remembers an early visit to Peterborough when Staal complained of being a bit sore after a three-mile training run. Robert looked down to see ordinary sneakers on Staal's feet, sneakers that belonged to Staal's father. Staal had also failed to mention he'd had arthroscopic knee surgery shortly before his arrival.

"That's when I said he's going to be a character player," says Robert.


For many 21-year-olds, the price of early, unparalleled success is an unwanted change in attitude. Yet those closest to Staal insist he remains grounded.

"He's one of the most humble guys I've ever met," Edgar said. "You wouldn't even know he played in the NHL."

Tanya VandenBroeke has dated Staal for the past two years. Their families, both part of a tight-knit Dutch community in the Thunder Bay area, were friendly and the two met through mutual friends.

"I didn't know he played hockey when I met him," says VandenBroeke, who is studying education at the local university.

She understands that success has come early to Staal, but she's certain the enormity of the accomplishments of the recent months isn't lost on him.

"I don't know if it's any different or harder for him [than older players], the whole experience," she says. "He knows there are guys who've been playing their whole careers and he's done this in just his second year."

"To me, he's not different," she says.


If this were just about one boy coming home with the Stanley Cup, it would still be a significant day in the life of this northern city and its people. But this boy is just one of many who might someday bring home the game's jewel. The Staal family is, simply put, like no other. Sure, six Sutter boys from Viking, Alberta played NHL hockey, but there is potential for all four Staal boys not only to make the NHL, but be impact players when they get there.

Eric Staal and Family
Gary MoskalykEric Staal, second from right, might not be the only Staal boy to bring Lord Stanley home.

Eric is already there, brother Marc is an impressive New York Rangers defensive prospect and Jordan was drafted earlier this summer with the second overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And if scouts are correct, Jared, the youngest, may be the most talented of the lot.

When the "other" Staal brothers arrive at the waterfront, there is an immediate buzz and lines instantly form around all of them while they patiently pose for pictures and sign autographs.

Although supportive and visible during the day, the other brothers stay away from the trophy.

"I had my picture taken behind it. But I'm not going to touch it," Marc explains. "All three of us aren't going to touch it."

Linda is asked if she has thought about the possibilities for the future, the number of times her talented sons might hoist the Cup, but she insists this moment is all they are thinking about.

"We'll just take this and be happy," she says. "I'm not thinking we'll ever see it again."


Staal has been signing and grinning and nodding politely for more than two hours when the Keeper of the Cup, Walt Neubrand, suggests that Staal take the Cup into the crowd so people can enjoy a brush with the great trophy, even if they won't get a chance for an autograph or individual picture.

It is a good suggestion.

Staal disappears into the throng. Then suddenly the Cup appears, thrust over Staal's shoulders, and the crowd responds with a great cheer.

"Goodbye Eric, we're proud of you," shouts out one well-wisher as Staal jumps into the SUV and his entourage heads out.


After a brief stop for lunch, Staal and his entourage roll into the Thunder Bay Christian Academy, a private Christian school Staal attended through his elementary school years.

The parking lot is soon filled and a line of 200 or so snakes along the building where Staal played as a youngster. Staal, the model of patience and politeness, signs everything from coffee mugs to shirts to pictures.

Among those in attendance is a young girl with a T-shirt that features a picture of Staal and the slogan, "Eric Staal is my homeboy."


A few minutes later, the Cup is sitting on the front lawn of Staal's paternal grandparents, his Oma and Opa.

"There it is, Opa. Sweet, eh?" Staal tells his grandfather, John.

Everyone wants to know where Staal's name is, but he explains the Canes' names are being etched on a new ring that will be added to the Cup in the fall.

"Where's Oma?" Staal asks. Someone jokes that she's in the house making soup for everyone. On cue, Lammie Staal runs out onto the front lawn.

"That's me, always late," Staal's grandmother says. "So that's the Cup."

For a moment, there is an almost awkward silence as the elder Staals peer at the trophy as though it's a meteorite they discovered on their lawn. Soon Staal's maternal grandparents (Linda's parents John and Riek) arrive.

"Now, it's complete," Lammie says.

Staal recalls how his grandparents used to watch him play minor hockey, giving him a dollar every time he scored until it became too expensive to do so. Linda's parents recall literally jumping for joy while watching the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.

"With tears running down our eyes," Staal's grandfather says.


Initially, Staal's plans did not include a trip to his "camp." (In Thunder Bay everyone has a "camp," no one has a "cottage." Go figure.)

Eric Staal
Gary MoskalykWhere it all began: Eric hoists the Cup in front of the boards his father built for the family's outdoor ice rink.

But as the day progresses, it becomes clear that Staal wants badly to bring the Cup to the property he purchased last summer. There are two reasons. First, the location is beautiful, nestled along the shores of pristine Shebandowan Lake. Beyond that, the "camp" represents Staal's own space. Much of his story, indeed his success, is intertwined with that of his parents and brothers. This space is his.

And so the convoy, conscious that Staal is hosting a large party for close friends and family at the family homestead at 7 p.m., heads out once more.

Along the way, Staal abruptly pulls the SUV to the side of the road. The Cup appears and in short order Staal is standing with it hoisted above his head in front of a sign. What gives? This is the hamlet of Stanley, a former train stop now home to a cluster of houses and a tavern.

Local resident Brian Marrion runs madly up the road with a camera in his hand. "Only in Stanley," pants Marrion. "This is awesome. Way to go big guy. I'm proud of that young man."


No sooner is the motorcade back in motion than Staal is pulling over again. Out Staal hops and he and the Cup pose in front of the Nor-West Recreation Center, where Staal played his first hockey. The parking lot is empty, but for an NHL star with the Stanley Cup in his hands, the place is thick with memories.


Finally it is time to return to the home farm, a closing of the circle.

Earlier that morning, Staal and his father showed off the Cup to some of the sod farm's loyal customers. Back in the day, Staal would have greeted them and helped load sod or whatever else they needed.

It is somehow fitting, then, that the Cup ends up on a sod cutter with Staal and his father, one of the last pictures before Staal departs for the party.

Leaning against the peeling wooden boards that at one time made up the backyard family rink, Staal admits the day has been a bit of a blur.

"It's been unbelievable. Obviously it's gone a lot quicker than I'd hoped," he says. He is 21. It's impossible for him not to think he'll be here again, even if the experiences of teammates suggest otherwise.

"It's hard to think about [not ever having it again]," he acknowledges.

But he knows teammates like Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley and Rod Brind'Amour waited years and years before getting their turn. "So you need to relish the moment," Staal says.

Although it has been almost two months since he first put his hands on the Cup on the RBC ice following Game 7, having it here, in his possession for the day, puts the trophy in a different light.

"It kind of gives me chills. And that's a cool feeling," he says.

He must have held it aloft 100 times. But every time is like the first.

"It feels even better every time I pick it up," he says with a grin. "It's its own legacy every time you pick it up. And that's a pretty neat feeling."

When it leaves? "It'll suck for a little bit."


Across the field that separates the farm operation from the family home, partygoers' cars line the side road.

All of what has gone before has been somewhat formal, part of Staal's duties as son, grandson, role model, mentor, student, former player, member of a community.

This celebration will be for Staal. Across the way a great cheer rises up into the evening air, not just for a trophy, but the young man holding it aloft.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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