Not too many Christian Reformed church communities get to see the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup up close and personal. But that may change this summer for First CRC in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when one of its own members, Eric Staal, visits his hometown with Lord Stanley’s cup in tow.
Staal, 21, played a starring role with the Carolina Hurricanes as the team won the NHL’s 2006 championship.
Since the mid-1990s each player on the team that wins the Stanley Cup gets the chance to take the giant silver chalice to his hometown for a celebration. Over the last decade the cup has landed at everything from restaurants to backyard barbeques to hospital children's wards, and perhaps now, a church.
Staal was born and raised in Thunder Bay, a city of about 100,000 located on the northern shores of Lake Superior. He still calls Thunder Bay's First CRC his church home.
In a phone interview with The Banner four days after Carolina registered a dramatic 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals, Staal talked about bringing the cup back to his hometown and perhaps to his home church.
It would be, Staal said, a way to repay a church family that has always supported him and his hockey-playing family.
“When I come home,” he said, “it feels like I've barely been gone. Coming back [to First CRC] and enjoying the service and the fellowship, it’s great. My faith is a major thing in my life. It helps me stay focused on what's really important: God and my family. My church is a big part of that.”
Eric’s dad, Henry Staal, said First CRC has been a central part of the Staal family’s life for more than 50 years. “Eric was baptized at our church,” he said. “It’s where he grew up. It's always been a part of our lives and of his life.”
Of course, the church has followed his hockey career, and that of his brothers, pretty closely. Henry said watching Eric win the Stanley Cup got people pretty excited.
Staal, a graduate of Thunder Bay Christian School, gave the church, his alma mater, and the city of Thunder Bay a lot to cheer about in 2005-2006, registering 45 goals and 55 assists for an even 100 points that put him in the top-10 in the NHL in just his second full season in the league.
He then went on to lead all scorers in the playoffs, becoming the second-youngest player in the NHL's modern era to accomplish such a feat. Only the Detroit Red Wings’ Hall of Famer Gordie Howe was younger than Staal when he led the league in playoff scoring in 1949. Staal was named an NHL team All Star.
Pretty heady stuff for a 21-year-old CRC kid. But Staal, while thrilled with the way his 2005-2006 season went, also stayed humble about his success, something he said comes from his faith and his parents, Henry and Linda Staal.
Henry Staal was a pretty good player in his own right in the late 1970s and early 1980s at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, although he jokes that he had million-dollar feet and 10-cent hands. He wore number 12 back in those days—the reason Eric wears that number today.
“He’s had that number since he was four,” said Henry Staal with a chuckle. “He wanted to wear Dad’s old number. It’s kind of neat.”
After college Henry became a sod farmer, taking over the family business, Sunshine Sod Farm, with his brother Gary. (Their dad began the business after immigrating to Canada from the Netherlands in 1951).
In classic Canadian fashion, when Eric was young Henry started building outdoor hockey rinks for the boys. Soon those rinks became a 50- by 100-foot expanse of ice, complete with boards and lights. There the Staal brothers honed their hockey craft, playing endless pick-up games with friends and relatives.
When nobody else was around, Eric and the youngest Staal sibling, Jared, would team up to take on middle siblings Marc and Jordan in endless games of two-on-two hockey.
“We were out there all the time,” Eric told the Associated Press this summer. “It wasn’t something we did to try to make the NHL. It was something we did because we enjoyed it, we had fun.”
In the end the fun paid off for the Staals.
Eric, a number-two overall draft pick in 2003, is the first Staal in the NHL, but not the last. In 2005 the New York Rangers drafted Marc, and in 2006 Jordan was the number-two pick overall, going to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jared, 15, is on his way to the Ontario Hockey League, one of the NHL's top development leagues.
So Lord Stanley's silver bowl may one day be inscribed with the name of more than one Staal. And perhaps it will have another shot at a trip to First CRC.
- written by Phil de Haan