It’s no secret around here that I have many hockey boyfriends. It’s a product of my upbringing and my intense love of the sport, and when a guy has an above average combination of talent, team likability, personality, and looks, he gets my attention. I could probably do a bracket full of hockey boyfriends alone, and without a doubt, the #1 seed would be Jordan Staal.
Are there players more talented than Staal? Of course. More attractive? Definitely. But over the past six seasons, Staalsy has become Penguins boyfriend #1 – and that’s saying an awful lot on a team loaded with this guy and this guy. It’s the overall package – a hard-working, likable player, who has literally grown up before our eyes from a teenager from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the incredibly talented, accomplished, and ruggedly sexy man that was, up until Friday, one of the stars of my favorite team.
There are two ways a guy can break up with you – one is the slow burning breakup, the one that seems to drag on forever, where things keep getting progressively worse until one side decides to just give up. The other is the sudden break up – the one that seems to come out of nowhere, leaving one side blindsided by the entire thing, wondering where it all went wrong.
Staalsy’s trade was that second type for me.
Sure, we could see the signs a mile away. He wanted more ice time and responsibility. He wanted to play with his brother. The other two centers were more the Pens’ priorities. But I’ve spent the last few months in total denial, keeping my hopes alive that the Pens staff would somehow get it done, that Staal saw Pittsburgh as his best chance to win, that passing up the opportunity to play with the two most talented players in the world was better than playing with his (talented, but not nearly as talented) brother. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and when my phone rang at dinner on Friday and I saw my brother’s name, I knew exactly what had happened.
My friends at dinner, thankfully, didn’t laugh at me when I got emotional. They know me, and they know this shit is important to me. My favorite player in the world would no longer be wearing the black and gold, and I was devastated by it. I know it’s the best move for him. He’s going to be let loose, and he’s going to tear it up. I know it’s better for the Pens – as long as we get one of those very attractive free agents up for grabs. But I’m selfish, and I want my favorite player to wear my favorite colors. It’s as simple as that.
I was at Staal’s first NHL game. It was a Thursday night, the season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, and two days before a friend’s wedding. (I have no idea how I scammed those tickets away from my dad, but he must have had something going on, because there’s no way my dad would ever let the first game of the season against the Flyers be used by someone other than himself.) We were planning on leaving DC in early afternoon and driving up to Pittsburgh, and plans got messy when my office had a bomb threat that morning. Thinking it was nothing more than a drill, I left my purse inside the office… and began to panic as minutes turned into hours and we weren’t allowed back in the building. Thankfully, the tickets were in Pittsburgh, and my ex had car keys, but my money and ID were inside my office – and I couldn’t do without those for the entire weekend. I waited as long as I could, but to me, getting to Mellon Arena before face-off was more important than waiting for my ID, and so I left and had a very nice coworker overnight everything to my parents’ house. We got to the Igloo with plenty of time to spare.
The game was a complete blowout. The season before had been nothing but disappointment; Pens fans had come in with extremely high hopes (we had Crosby and Lemieux – how could we fail?!), but each game seemed to go more poorly than the previous one, until it seemed like more of the wasted seasons of the pre-lockout years. So watching the boys in black and gold dominate our oldest and fiercest rivals was even more satisfying than usual, because it was so unexpected. And it was that night that I got my first look at Jordan Staal.
Staal had been drafted just months earlier – the reward for that awful season a year before. He wasn’t expected to last in the NHL. The prevailing opinion was that he’d play a certain number of games to start the year and then go back to juniors. But he proved himself time and time again and made himself too valuable not to be on the team. And from that first game on, I loved him.
I watched his first NHL hat trick from a smokey, dark hockey bar called Bugsy’s in Alexandria, VA. I screamed along with the rest of Mellon Arena as he just missed an empty net for what could have been his 30th goal in his rookie year. I argued with my dad when he said he’d trade him for a bag of pucks during his sophomore year and predicted he’d get a Selke someday. (He’s already got one nomination.) I watched his unbelievably dominating performance against the Detroit Red Wings from my little apartment in Amherst, MA, purging for one night the demons of losing the Stanley Cup to them a few months before. I have watched video of his series changing shorthanded goal from Game 4 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals a thousand times, because I didn’t get to see it live – my friend’s cable had gone out just minutes before. I marveled at him when had a tendon sliced in the playoffs and only missed one game. And I screamed with joy when I read on the morning of January 1, 2011, that he would be returning from injury and be making his season debut at the Winter Classic, meaning my brand new Staal Winter Classic jersey wouldn’t be inaccurate.
Barring a lockout related schedule change, I’ll be in Pittsburgh for his first game back, the Friday after Thanksgiving. For that game, I’ll proudly wear my #11 Pens jersey, and I’ll stand and cheer and thank him for the memories, for the Stanley Cup, for all the hard work he put in as an integral member of my team for six seasons. And then, someday, I’ll buy a Hurricanes #11 shersey, and I’ll turn on a Rangers/Hurricanes game just to watch him play. I’ll cheer for the Hurricanes, unless they’re playing the Penguins, and I’ll hope he wins another Stanley Cup, unless the playoff road goes through Pittsburgh. (Dear hockey gods, please don’t ever do that to me.) This isn’t a breakup. Just a change in relationship. I’ll still love him, more than Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and all my other non-Penguins boyfriends combined. And I’ll hope against hope that someday we’ll see a Staal comeback tour – that like Kevin Stevens and Alexei Kovalev he’ll come back again near the end of his career for one more skate in the black and gold. Back where he belongs.
Good luck, Staalsy. I’m going to miss you so much.