Marc Staal welcomes brother Eric to Rangers in trade last month just five years after receiving huge concussion-causing hit from older sibling as Hurricane that took Blueshirt defenseman nearly a year to recover from.
SAN JOSE – More than five years ago, Eric Staal’s thunderous hit on his brother, Marc, in Raleigh, N.C., was so violent and damaging to Marc’s career that it stuck as an indelible image of a hostile on-ice relationship.
The memory of Feb. 22, 2011, is impossible to forget even as the brothers now play as Rangers teammates, after Eric waived his no-trade clause with the Carolina Hurricanes to facilitate a Feb. 28 trade to New York.
The story of how Eric, 31, and Marc, 29, handled, coped with, learned from and persevered through that trying time, though, is much more complicated than any archived NHL highlight can reveal.
It is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming, shining a light on the dark side of concussions in sports while telling the tale of two grounded brothers from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who value family and health above everything.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t have hit him,” Eric says quietly.
“I blame myself,” Marc says surprisingly, “more than anyone.”
This is about two siblings who stuck to their values despite the vitriol of critics who would never understand; despite the frightening and unpredictable consequences of one collision; despite the millions of dollars they’ve made or the distance that has separated them geographically for years.
Eric and Marc Staal are as close as ever. They always were.
Our story begins in a hallway of what was then called Raleigh’s RBC Center, where Eric met Marc after laying his younger brother out at 19:11 of the second period of a 4-3 Rangers shootout win.
Eric had caught Marc shoulder to shoulder with his head down on the puck during a Ranger power play, while Marc was fending off a hook by Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Marc’s head and body whiplashed violently down to the ice. His stick flew. He did not play in the game’s final 13:20 or in overtime.
Marc Staal (18) and his brother Eric Staal during warm-ups at the Garden last month.
“I apologized right away,” Eric told the Daily News this week in California. “I felt bad. You have a half-second to react, but right after the hit, I knew it was him. Hockey is physical and aggressive. In hindsight, seeing what he went through that year after the hit, I regret it. In the moment you’re playing you can’t stop and think. That’s not how it works. But after I found out what he was dealing with, I thought about it a lot. I felt bad.”
Marc appreciated Eric’s remorse, but in a family of four brothers who grew up battling each other in the living room and backyard every day, Marc didn’t truly understand why Eric felt an apology was necessary.
“It was something he felt bad about,” Marc told The News. “He caught me hard, I was in a vulnerable position, but he wasn’t trying to hurt me. Right after the game he apologized, and I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know the full effect. It was my first concussion, but I thought I’d just gotten my bell rung and I’d be fine.”
Marc didn’t know how serious a head injury could be. He didn’t know that continuing to play could make it worse. He didn’t know that concussion symptoms triggered by this exact hit would ruin his summer, force him to consult leading concussion specialists and sideline him for the first 37 games of the following season until his debut in the Jan. 2, 2012, Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Staal had headaches the night after the hit. He was listed as out for three games due to a knee injury and two more in mid-March with recurring headaches. The Rangers diagnosed Staal with a concussion – an injury the team would not reveal publicly until the following training camp – but then-coach John Tortorella said that Staal had passed a baseline test that measures the brain’s level of cognitive function.
So he returned to the lineup March 3 and missed only those five regular-season games after Eric’s hit, playing in 15 more games and a full, five-game first-round series against Washington – all to his own detriment.
“I was hurting, not sleeping well. I had headaches,” Marc said. “But we were making a push to the playoffs. You want to play. You’re a young guy. I thought it would clean up in a couple weeks, and it didn’t happen that way.”
So does Marc blame Eric for one of the most difficult periods of his life? No. He blames himself.
“It’s a little different that it’s him, but hits are gonna happen. It wasn’t that bad when it happened,” Marc said. “The problem was I got a concussion and treated it like it wasn’t one. I blame myself more than anyone for how I handled it. It could have been a 14-day recovery and it turned into a year. Honestly it was probably harder on (Eric) than it was on me (to get over the hit). I had no ill will towards him at any point.”
Eric (l.) and Marc Staal during practice for the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal.
Eric was relieved to have Marc’s forgiveness, but he also cringed at his brother’s pain.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t have hit him,” Eric said. “He didn’t want me to feel bad. It was difficult for him, but he never made me feel down about it. He wasn’t angry or upset with me. He was more upset with how he felt physically. In hindsight, we know better how to handle that bad a situation. But it was on my mind a while after. I would talk to him a lot, ask how he was doing.”
Eric admitted “my mom wasn’t happy,” but Linda Staal’s oldest son also said his mother “understands” hockey’s perils. It would be difficult for her not to.
She and husband Henry also raised, Jordan, 27, a Hurricanes center and Eric’s former teammate; and their youngest of four, Jared, 25, a minor-leaguer whose dream came true on April 25, 2013, when he started on a line with Eric and Jordan against the Rangers in his NHL debut.
All four brothers were not on the ice that night. Marc was recovering from a frightening right eye injury from a puck to the face in early March against the Philadelphia Flyers that he overcame despite permanent damage to his vision on that side. His left eye has strengthened to compensate. He missed the final 27 games of that season and 11 of 12 playoff games.
But Marc, now healthy, said his mother has wagged her finger his way, too, over an on-ice collision with a brother, when he once stepped into Jordan, who was then a Pittsburgh Penguin.
“This one time I hit Jordan in Pittsburgh, my mom was so mad at me,” Marc recalled. “The puck came past him, he never touched it and I interfered. I mean, it was a penalty. I hit him hard. Growing up we competed hard in everything, but the thing is, playing hard like that at this high a level, you can hurt someone.”
Marc unfortunately believes he hurt himself most by playing through his own 2011 concussion. But Eric recognizes that Marc could have blamed him or let an unfortunate split-second decision color their relationship, and that he’s lucky to have Marc as a brother, let alone a teammate and friend.
“He never faulted me, which I appreciate, because he could have,” said Eric, who OK’d his trade to New York seeking his second Stanley Cup – and Marc’s first. “He never made me feel like ‘It’s your fault,’ and I’m grateful that he’s that type of person, someone who is so well-meaning.”
Oh, brother. What a bond.