Jordan Staal Standing Tall
The Penguins' 22-year-old superstar emerges stronger after setbacks.
It’s a shame that HBO’s cameras stopped rolling when the 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic series wrapped up in January, because they may have missed the most imaginative prank of the season.
The misadventures of Mike Kadar, the Pittsburgh Penguins strength and conditioning coach, were previously documented in Pittsburgh magazine’s December 2010 cover story on Sidney Crosby, when a gang of Penguins players flooded Kadar’s SUV with packing peanuts. Since then, the battle has raged on predictably, with Kadar assigning torturous regimens of squats, sprints and power-lifts while Penguins players hatch new schemes of vengeance. Recently, Kadar walked into the state-of-the-art weight room at the CONSOL Energy Center and discovered that someone did a little redecorating.
“We had pretty much everything on top of the ceiling—heart monitors and weight vests and all the fancy equipment was strung up on the beams,” says 22-year-old center Jordan Staal. “Our trainer was pretty pissed, but it was one of the funniest pranks of the season.”
It was the kind of moment Staal missed the most while he was sidelined for the first three months of the season with two freak injuries: an infection in his foot followed by a broken hand sustained in an accident at practice just days before he was scheduled to return. A teammate’s errant slapshot struck Staal’s hand, sending him to the X-ray room. The results were negative, so, like any hockey player, he returned to the ice. “But [my hand] was bruised up enough that, later on in practice, I was shooting and the bone popped,” Staal says, frowning. Encouraging text messages from teammates poured in, but it was little consolation. He traded his hockey sweater for a surgery gown for the third time in six months.
“It was the hardest part of my career so far,” Staal says. “I kind of stuck to myself. I wasn’t trying to hang out with the guys too much. Not being around my friends every day was probably the hardest part.” With Kadar’s help, Staal furiously trained in order to make his return to the lineup on a date that had been circled on his calendar for months: 1/1/11. The Winter Classic.
“I had chills pretty much the entire day,” Staal says of his unusual season debut in front of 68,000 people at Heinz Field. “For what I went through, it was an incredible feeling stepping out on the ice in front of our fans.”
Now in his fifth season in the league, he’s leading a resilient Penguins team on their fifth consecutive playoff run, and the ultimate goal—with or without a healthy Crosby—is no joke: “The Stanley Cup, 100 percent,” he says. “The commitment runs deep in this locker room.”
Pittsburgh magazine recently sat down with Staal to discuss revenge pranks, stinky hockey bags and brother-on- brother violence.
PM: The show 24/7 brought to light the infamous “move your teammate’s hotel-room furniture into the hallway” gag. I heard you were the original victim during your rookie year. Did you pay back the perpetrators?
JS: As a rookie, you’ve got to laugh it off, or you get it even harder. But one time, they were trying to get me again, and I came back early from dinner and caught one of them in the act in my room. So I took him down and gave him a bloody nose by accident. [Teammate Chris Kunitz interjects, “Yeah, sure—by accident.”]
Now that Bill Guerin is gone, who's the funniest guy in the locker room?
Ha. Wait, Billy's gone? I'd have to say the new guys are pretty close—Comrie and Asham. They're definitely characters.
Your brother Eric [a forward for the Carolina Hurricanes] recently leveled a monster hit on your brother Marc [a defenseman for the New York Rangers]. Did your family bust his chops?
Yeah, I was obviously laughing, but it might be a touchy subject for them. My mom’s never a fan of that stuff, but I’m sure my dad didn’t mind.
Are you aware of the Internet phenomenon, The Staal Brothers Drinking Game? One beer each time a broadcaster mentions the four Staal brothers playing in the NHL.
Oh yeah, I’ve heard about it. I don’t know how the announcers beat that thing into the ground so hard. I’ll never try the game because I wouldn’t make it through the first period.
It’s a hockey tradition for kids to shout the names of pros they’re trying to imitate when they’re playing on the pond. Who were your favorites?
It changed every year, but Scott Gomez in his rookie year, Todd Bertuzzi when he was in Vancouver, Joe Thornton and Joe Sakic were big ones. Even when we played hallway hockey with the mini sticks, we would shout out our player. We got in a lot of trouble as kids playing hallway hockey in hotels—marking up the walls and stuff—but it was a lot of fun.
Growing up with four brothers, how could you have possibly aired out all of that hockey equipment? Your mom must have been beside herself.
Oh man, we had an unfinished basement, and we spread it out down there. No one went down there a whole lot. It got pretty stinky, as you can imagine. I was probably the worst offender. My parents always ripped into me for how bad my gloves smelled.
When you were injured, how did you spend all of your down time?
Luckily, I broke my ring finger, and I still had had my four fingers so I could play videogames. *Mimes holding an Xbox controller* That’s all I did, actually. I’m a Call of Duty guy. I haven’t been able to stop playing Modern Warfare 2.
Unfortunately, you were one of the last players cut from the Canadian Olympic team that went on to win the gold. Did you freak out like every other Canadian when Crosby scored the winner?
I was at [teammate] Craig Adams’ place watching the game, and we’re both Canadian, which was nice because we didn’t have to worry about offending each other. When Sid scored, it was probably the first time I ever jumped up while watching a hockey game. I usually don’t get too emotional, but that was a great moment for Canada and for Sid.
Finally, everyone on Twitter wants to know: What happened to the flow [hockey hair]?
You’ll have to ask my girlfriend. She was on me about it all the time. Pretty much the only reason I didn’t cut it for that long was because she hated it so much. Maybe I’ll skate a little faster now.