Selfless & steady Calm, balanced approach to game, life is what matters to unassuming Stastny
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2021 (534 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When the day comes for Paul Stastny to hang up his skates for good, ending what’s already been a sparkling pro career, he hopes to leave a lasting mark on the game he loves.
He didn’t use the word legacy, nor would he. If you’ve had the chance to speak with Stastny before, you quickly realize his discomfort in talking about personal accolades, despite possessing many. He’s been selected as an NHL all-star, and represented the United States on multiple occasions, including at two Olympics.
In 961 NHL games, Stastny has 253 goals and 482 assists for 735 points. He’s played another 97 playoff games, having reached the Western Conference final on three separate occasions over his career, adding another 25 goals and 42 assists to his point totals. He’s still chasing his first Stanley Cup.
But at 35 years old, and in the middle of his 15th NHL season, which includes a second go-around with the Winnipeg Jets, it’s not what shows up on the scoresheet that matters most to the veteran centre. Stastny is acutely aware that professional sports can be unforgiving; a good season one year doesn’t necessarily guarantee one the next. But what doesn’t have to change, he says, is how he approaches the game, and the way he treats the people around him.
Showing respect to others, being humbled when things are good and calm when they’re not, is what Stastny prefers to be remembered for. It’s just one of the lessons he’s learned from his father, Peter, who carved out a Hall of Fame career over 15 seasons in the NHL and was the first European to reach the 1,000-point mark.
“I see it with my dad. People in this generation don’t know who he is. They just know him as my dad and a good stand-up guy but they have no idea about Peter Stastny, the Hall of Famer who dominated hockey at one time,” Stastny says over an hour-long phone interview with the Free Press.
“You realize you want to make a lasting impression and the way you do it is you can be a good player on the ice but you want to be known as a good person that helped out his teammates, that can be counted on, was on time and disciplined — did everything one way and it was the right way.”
He adds: “People will remember you more for that than what you do on the ice. I think when you’re younger you think everyone knows you and hockey but it’s less than one per cent of people in the world who know what you did last night, who were looking at your stats.”
It’s that consistent approach to the game that has served Stastny well, and the reason many believe he’s still contributing at a high level. Being a team player, giving back to the game that’s given him so much, has come to define him by his teammates. Staying true to himself has allowed him to cherish his time in the NHL and appreciate whatever time he has left.
“I certainly don’t feel old,” Stastny says. “Age is just a number and if you enjoy what you’re doing then it is what it is.”
Luke Fulghum remembers sitting down with head coach George Gwozdecky and the rest of the University of Denver coaching staff ahead of the 2004-05 US college hockey season.
Fulghum was a senior at the time, fresh off helping the Pioneers to a national title. He recalls feeling a bit frazzled after being asked to play with Stastny, a highly-touted freshman. Fast-forward to the end of the season, though, and the Pioneers not only repeated as national champions, but Fulghum led the WCHA with 23 goals.
“The main reason was Stastny and my other line mate Ryan Dingle,” Fulghum says from his home in Colorado, where he directs and coaches with the AAA Colorado Rampage. “We had a special group but without having Paul on my line, I probably don’t get my opportunity to crack into professional hockey, playing for 10 years.”
For Fulghum, two things were immediately apparent with Stastny: how humble he was and his high hockey IQ.
He says Stastny was highly scouted by the U of D, and with a father who was also a highly-recognized NHLer, he didn’t know what to expect. What the Pioneers got was someone who despite being a terrific player, knew he still had a lot to learn and a strong desire to get better.
“He was the smartest guy on the team but he was there to learn from us and understood that he had a long way to go. But once we got after it, that first practice I was pretty much hooked.” – University of Denver line mate Luke Fulghum
“Never once, and I think that reflects in his pro career and why he’s been so successful, never once was he cocky or thought he was too big for the room he was in,” he says. “He was the smartest guy on the team but he was there to learn from us and understood that he had a long way to go. But once we got after it, that first practice I was pretty much hooked.”
Then came the on-ice magic. Few, Fulghum says, could see the ice the way Stastny could. He says he was as good as anyone at drawing two or three guys in, baiting them in for the puck and then finding the open guy and making the play.
In one of their first games of the season, in Mankato, Minn., on the power play, Fulghum says Stastny noticed a wrinkle in their opponent’s penalty-kill formation.
“He saw something that I didn’t and he mentioned it to me. He said to make sure you go to this spot and that he’s going to throw a nice pass into this area, so make sure you’re ready to shoot it,” he says. “And, sure enough, next power play we got, same thing happened. I went to that spot and the next thing you know it’s on my tape and in the back of the net. That was pretty early on in the season, so it was clear even then that his brains and his vision on the ice was phenomenal.”
Joel Quenneville first watched Stastny as a young kid playing in St. Louis. He had taken over the head coaching job with the Blues midway through the 1996-97 season, just a couple years removed from when Peter Stastny played. As a member of a hands-on Blues alumni, Peter Stastny would bring Paul around for events, and later, Quenneville watched as younger Stastny starred as a teen with the St. Louis Jr. Blues.
Quenneville said Stastny, though small, was dominant as a youngster. He marvelled at his ability to not only retrieve the puck, but also his shiftiness to hold onto it. That continued with the Pioneers, where because of the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Quenneville was able to scout Stastny more closely than he would in a regular season.
With Quenneville now leading the Colorado Avalanche, they selected Stastny in the second round, 44th overall, in the 2005 NHL Draft.
“As a rookie in Colorado, he had an amazing year. He wanted the puck and he knew what to do with it,” Quenneville, now in his second season as head coach of the Florida Panthers, says. “I used to play against his dad and he has a lot of those same qualities, in that his hockey sense was just uncanny and the puck seemed to follow him around the ice. He was quiet but always asking questions, wanting to learn.”
After two seasons with the Pioneers, Stastny joined the Avalanche for the 2006-07 NHL season. He made his mark almost immediately, enough to earn opportunities up and down the lineup. He finished the season with a stellar 78 points, playing in all 82 games.
He still holds the NHL record for the longest point streak by a rookie, at 20 games. Just below him on the list is Winnipeg fan-favourite, Teemu Selanne, with 17 games, and his father, at 16.
“Joel basically put me in a good position and never really expected anything from me, never put pressure on me for this or that. When I did struggle a little bit my first year, he had a way of being like a good mental coach,” Stastny says. “He would be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to put you with these guys just to spark some energy. Don’t get discouraged.’ It would wake me up and all of a sudden, I had a good game and the next day I was back with my line. The best thing that ever happened to me was having Joel as a coach because he gave me a chance.”
Given his intelligence in the game, Quenneville is not at all surprised Stastny still playing. He still enjoys running into him from time to time, and always walks away appreciating the encounter.
“He’s one of those guys that likes to laugh and enjoy life,” Quenneville says. “He’s always been an easy guy to be around.”
In a league full of egos, Paul Stastny is a breath of fresh air in the NHL. He gets along with media — something he credits to understanding their role in growing the game — and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Becoming a father — he has a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son with his wife, Haley — has only further solidified his belief in taking a big-picture approach to life. As someone who’s always willing to offer a helping hand to teammates or friends, it’s been an incredible opportunity to help ingrain his children with the same morals and values he learned growing up.
“I find it fun watching them grow in front of you and no matter how stressful things get, they always put a smile on your face and most times you can just laugh it off,” he says.
“I find it fun watching them grow in front of you and no matter how stressful things get, they always put a smile on your face and most times you can just laugh it off.” – Paul Stastny
“Maybe it’s my parents growing up in Communism and coming to a free world and really how lucky we are. Every day it was bred into us. The best thing that ever happened to me was being raised by two good structures. And then the best thing that happened to my parents is they had good parents, you know, and a good support system around them because it can get lonely out there.”
For as much as his father has done for his life and career, Stastny is quick to praise his mother, Darina, for everything she’s provided.
“For all the sacrifices my dad made, she goes hand in hand with it,” he says, while also crediting his brother and two sisters for their continued support.
A strong support system has helped Stastny throughout his career. He leaned on those closest to him when he opted to waive his no-movement clause to join the Jets for their long playoff run in 2018. They were there again that ensuing summer, when Stastny became a free agent and signed with the Vegas Golden Knights, despite having a strong interest to stay in Winnipeg.
The Jets are happy to have Stastny back. And much like players such as Joe Sakic and Andrew Brunette helped him out early in his career, he’s sure to return the favour to many of the younger players in Winnipeg.
“How much time do you have?” Andrew Copp says when asked what he appreciates most about Stastny. “On the ice, you really value his hockey IQ, first and foremost; his ability to understand what’s going on in the game and make plays accordingly; and the puck support that you get from him, the communication on the bench, he’s just a great person to have in the room in terms of just his hockey mind and playing off of guys.”
Copp adds: “He allows guys to be themselves and he makes everyone better. He kind of makes up for any deficiency any one player might have and just kind of lets them play to their strengths. Then off the ice, just super smart, always, whether it’s even hockey-related or not. He is a super intelligent conversation, thought provoking. Just a great addition to our room. I could go on.”
“Then off the ice, just super smart, always, whether it’s even hockey-related or not. He is a super intelligent conversation, thought provoking. Just a great addition to our room. I could go on.” – Andrew Copp
Jets head coach Paul Maurice is also a fan. With Stastny willing to accept any assignment his coach asks of him, along with a willingness to coach up the less experienced players on the team, he’s about as low-maintenance as it gets — and just as valuable.
“The player, if you’re going to reach back into the old days, Paul Stastny would remind me very much of Ron Francis. Not necessarily the fastest guy on the ice, but exceptionally gifted in reading the play; very, very good hands. But he’s a player that — and this was true of Ronnie as well — you never managed this guy’s game, and what I’m talking about is with the puck. His decision making on when there’s something and when there’s not is as good as there is in the league,” Maurice says. “If there’s a play to be made, he makes it, every single time. But there’s very little risk in this game. So, he’s got that intelligence that’s just kind of off the charts. Off the ice, they were always, both those guys, team first. It’s not about points, it’s not about my next contract. It’s about a love for the game.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.