When Marc Staal first stepped onto the ice at the Sudbury Arena, the last thing he thought, as he looked toward the rafters is that, one day, his jersey would hang there alongside Mike Foligno’s, his coach at the time and one of the most iconic players in team history.
“When I am 16-years-old and he’s my coach, I’m not thinking my number is going to go up beside his, that’s for sure,” Staal said recently via Zoom from his hotel room while the Florida Panthers were on the road in Montreal.
Although it was something that he wouldn’t have pondered in his wildest dreams as a teenager, it will become reality for Staal on Friday night.
This past summer, Wolves GM Rob Papineau called Staal to let him know that the club was looking to honour him by retiring his No. 14. At first Staal was in disbelief and then he was humbled by the gesture.
“They have a lot of history in those rafters,” he said. “For the organization to give me that type of honour in their 50th year is very special.”
Originally drafted second overall by the Wolves in the 2003 OHL Priority Selection, Staal went on to play four seasons in Sudbury, becoming one of the greatest players ever to patrol the Wolves’ blue line.
Thinking back on his time with the Wolves, there is not necessarily one memory that comes to mind for Staal. Rather, it was his entire experience there and how it helped him take the next step in his development and, ultimately, his career.
“For me going to Sudbury kind of made me grow up quick,” he said. “I’m 16 years old and away from home. I think the memory of meeting my new teammates and going to a new school. The feeling of being uncomfortable in new situations and learning to thrive in those situations was probably the biggest thing.”
And thrive he did. Staal quickly established himself as one of the top blueliners in the league and within a couple of years he was taken 12th overall by the New York Rangers in the NHL Entry Draft. When he returned to Sudbury the following season, Staal was named team captain.
Although Staal turned professional with the Hartford Wolfpack, New York’s American Hockey League affiliate, at the end of the Wolves’ 2005-06 schedule, he returned to Sudbury for one final campaign, which would ultimately cement his legacy with the club.
At season’s end, Staal was awarded the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding defenceman, but it was his performance in the playoffs that year that everybody still talks about.
In 21 games all the way to the league championship, Staal racked up five goals and 20 points and was a force in his own end. Former teammate Akim Aliu once referred to Staal’s performance as unbelievable and said that he was the best player in the league hands down, a claim that very few would challenge.
But that run may not have happened if it was not for the buy-in from the club’s veteran players and chiefly its leader, Staal. As the OHL trade deadline approached in 2007, the Wolves were not exactly a contender on paper. Although they were a better team than their record indicated, they could have been sellers at the deadline.
Staal remembers having a conversation with head coach Mike Foligno about the crossroads the team found itself in at the time.
“Mike said, ‘do you guys want to do this, or do you want me to trade you away because if you guys want to make a run for it, I’ll try to make that happen,’” Staal recalled.
“I remember me and Nick [Foligno] and a few of the other guys were like ‘we want to go for it.’ I think we underachieved in the regular season and everybody in the room knew it and that we were more talented than a lot of other teams and if we just put in the work, we could potentially do something special.”
Although the Wolves came up short in the final to the Plymouth Whalers, it made for one of the most exciting and memorable runs in franchise history.
Staal still smiles when he remembers how the community rallied around the team that post-season. “Anywhere you went everyone was wishing you good luck,” he said. “The city was buzzing.”
And then there was the arena. During that run, it was nearly impossible to get a ticket and even if you did, you were in the standing room only section, which was three rows deep around the concourse.
While Staal has played more than 1,000 NHL games in much larger rinks across the league, he will never forget the feeling of playing for those sold-out crowds in Sudbury.
“At the time I had played a couple of exhibition NHL games, but it felt bigger and louder than it was,” he said. “It was such an advantage for us. It was a tough place to play. We didn’t make it easy and the crowd was a huge factor in it. It’s one of those old school barns that’s though to play in when you’re a visiting team and the energy and vibe in there is pretty electric.”
Staal, of course, still has a place in his heart for the wolf on a wire. “I love it,” he said with a smirk. “Even the guys I have played within the NHL that have never played in Sudbury, they know about the wolf. Visiting teams hate it, obviously, and when we see it coming out it’s good news for us. I think it’s a great tradition, I think it’s cool and I’m glad it’s still going.”
With any luck, the team will summon the mangy canine a few times for Staal when he returns to have his number join some of the franchise’s greatest players, high above the ice on which it all began for him.