When Matt Stajan plays in his 1,000th NHL game on Wednesday night, he’ll have done so mostly as a member of the Flames. Wednesday will be Stajan’s 555th game with Calgary and I’m genuinely thrilled he gets to celebrate such a significant milestone with the organization he’s become synonymous with.
Regardless of his contract, usage, or performance, Stajan has never once left anything on the ice as a member of the Flames. He’s been a whipping boy, he’s been a great bounce back story, and, yeah, he’s been an inspiration.
When it comes to this player I’m admittedly as biased as it comes. Hopefully the following paragraphs illustrate why, whether you’re a fan of his on the ice or not, Stajan’s pending milestone truly deserves to be celebrated.
I break Stajan’s nine seasons with Calgary into a number of segments, starting with his shock arrival more than eight years ago. I honestly can’t think of a Flames player who has experienced such extreme highs contrasted with gut-punching lows in recent memory. And yet, through all of it, Stajan has been the same even keeled guy: always gracious with the media, always willing to answer tough questions, and always a model ambassador for the organization. I had the chance to speak with him at length last week.
“It was an off day and it’s kind of funny because, you know, we played Vancouver the night before, it was a Saturday night and it was just kind of somber at the rink that day. We had lost the night before in overtime and a few guys got ripped in the morning, and you kind of got the sense something was going on. We lost to Vancouver that night again in overtime, so, you know the next day was an off day just to regroup from what just happened.
“Honestly, I was sitting on the couch in our new house; me and my wife had just moved into our new house probably three months earlier. She was making me breakfast and we got a call from Ian White, who we were close with, and he said, ‘Yeah we got traded to Calgary.’
“Right there your life is changed forever and you pick up and go. We were on an airplane honestly, like, five hours later; pack up a suitcase and we played the next night here in Calgary. It was quick, it was hard to wrap your head around everything… but it was an experience and looking back it’s probably one of the best things that’s happened for my family.”
Let’s be honest; the trade that saw the Flames acquire Stajan will forever be known as the “Dion Phaneuf trade”. For me, the day itself is etched as one of those I won’t forget. It was my first year covering the team full time and the Overtime call-in show was becoming increasingly hostile towards the struggling team. Even more striking was how much criticism was being pointed at Phaneuf, who was just a few years removed from being a Norris Trophy finalist.
On Jan. 30, Calgary took the boots to the Edmonton Oilers in a 6-1 rout, halting an ugly losing streak at nine games in the process. During that stretch, the Flames had fallen from third in the Western Conference to eighth, just barely in a playoff spot. One day later, general manager Darryl Sutter blew up the team.
Phaneuf was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie that Sunday morning. In return, Calgary brought back four players: forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, and Jamal Mayers, and defenceman Ian White.
In a lot of ways, Stajan was the key acquisition for the Flames. He had just turned 26, was coming off a career year with the Leafs (55 points in 76 games), and was on pace to surpass those totals upon arriving in Calgary. The bar was set high, yet the way the Flames finished the season made meeting even modest outside expectations was going to be tough.
IN THE BEGINNING
“I think, just, expectations came quickly. You know, I was coming off making $1.5 million, expiring contract, two 50+ point seasons and the next year I got injured in the first preseason game. I separated my shoulder and missed all of camp and I came back three games into the season.
“I probably could have played better, I should played better… Brent just lost trust in my game and for whatever reason, you know, I had to reinvent the way I approached things. I didn’t want to let it affect me. I came up being defensively responsible and got through junior that way. Brent basically said, ‘You’re playing on the fourth line, that’s the way it is.’
“Who knows what was going on, Darryl was on his way out… I don’t know who supports who, you know, so all I could do is go to the rink, be a good teammate, work hard, and control what you can.”
To say Stajan’s time in Calgary started poorly would likely be understating it. He’d finish 2009-10 with 16 points in 27 games with his new team while also posting an overall career-best with 57 points. For most, though, that didn’t matter. The Flames finished the season 13-12-2 to miss the playoffs and many attached that failure to the four new faces acquired from Toronto.
Stajan’s first full season with Calgary didn’t help the narrative, either. As referenced above, it started with a shoulder injury and he returned in the midst of an awful start to 2010-11. Head coach Brent Sutter demoted him to the fourth line and, for many, that was tough to swallow. Stajan was in year one of a four-year, $14 million contract, and things just didn’t seem to add up. The criticism was constant, loud and came from fans and media alike.
Through all of it, though, Stajan never once declined an interview, snapped at a reporter, or rolled his eyes at a question. He knew he was struggling, never shied away from it, and did it all with a freaking smile.
I marvelled at it at the time, because I needed days to recover anytime someone publicly ripped my work. Just 10 months older than me, here was Stajan with his military grade thick skin compared to whatever ripped up plastic bag I was wearing. That’s why when the narrative turned, so many who have the chance to cover this team daily were thrilled to see it.
ALONG THE WAY
“Before Brent was gone, the last half of that season, it kind of turned again. He started using me more and playing me more and relied on me in the last half of his tenure here. I played really well and my game really rounded out because I knew even if I wasn’t scoring that I could still contribute in different ways.
“And then when Bob came in, he relied on me heavily… I embraced the role of being that checking forward and Bob used me against top lines every single game for two years. That really showed support and then you just kind of keep going.”
After two seasons where Stajan really struggled, things really did turn. Bob Hartley gave him a fresh slate to start the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and Stajan began to carve out a niche for himself. Look at how things changed for him following 2011-12, Sutter’s last season.
Starting under Hartley and continuing into Glen Gulutzan’s tenure, Stajan took on a far more defensive role. In fact, his first few years playing that role saw Stajan matched up frequently against opposing top lines, and he was effective. As Stajan became one of Calgary’s leaders, the narrative started to change as fans started to notice and appreciate his work. Some unforgettable moments were to follow.
“I remember that day especially. We were in Edmonton and that morning I remember Curtis Glencross coming to me and he goes, ‘I’ve got a feeling about tonight.’ I was like, ‘Yeah I hope so.’ We were just kind of getting through the season at that point, we were basically done. That day, I couldn’t nap, it was just a weird day and the game happened and everything went right that night, everything. Even that penalty shot that I got, it’s a questionable call whether it should have been a penalty. The guy kind of just whacked my arm; I guess it is a penalty by the book, but you usually don’t see that called.
“It all happened and, you know, I’ve tried that move in practice a bunch of times. I actually tried it on a penalty shot earlier in my career and got stopped. I actually didn’t get all of the shot; I was trying to go over the glove and it went under the glove. I was like, ‘This is meant to be,’ and it was just kind of surreal. It was just natural to point up and it just kind of all happened. That’s definitely, personally, the most special moment of my career.”
Within their first few years with the team, Matt and Katie Stajan determined Calgary was home. How the city reacted upon learning of the couple’s loss in March 2014 affirmed how important that choice was.
When Matt and Katie lost their son Emerson, the outpouring from Flames fans and Calgarians alike was incredible to see from the outside. For the Stajans, though, it was paramount in the healing process, more than perhaps we can ever really understand. Katie has talked about it at length, and in our chat last week, Matt brought it up numerous times without being asked. How do you begin to put a value on something like that?
So when Stajan scored that penalty shot goal on March 22, 2014, it was hard not to get punched right in the feels. It was just 19 days later and only his third game back after missing eight to be with his family. That night, though, social media exploded following a raw, unscripted, emotional reaction to a moment that Stajan calls the most special of his career.
Just over a year later, he’d be gifting Flames fans another unforgettable memory.
“I can’t even describe the feeling that I felt, the whole building felt. I was actually not feeling very well that day. I think I had food poisoning or something; I was puking before the game. You try and play a little safer that day, and that game we were playing against the Sedins.
“Even that goal, I’m just trying to stay above and, you know, you see an opportunity where the puck rebounds and kicks out and you just jump on it. The puck was rolling a little bit, you let it settle and it caught the elbow of the net. It’s not like I can aim and pick that spot, you know, that’s hockey, you shoot to an area and things happen. That was incredible.”
The entire 2014-15 season was full of improbable moments as the Flames became the NHL’s underdog darlings. Not only did Calgary vanquish the mighty L.A. Kings by qualifying for the postseason, they took it one step further and won a series, and it was Stajan punching the team’s ticket to round two.
Game six of that series between the Flames and Vancouver Canucks was a circus. Trailing the best of seven 3-2, the Canucks opened up a 3-0 lead before the midway mark of the first period. As they tended to do that season, though, Calgary bounced back and had things even just over five minutes into the second before falling down 4-3 heading into the final frame.
The Scotiabank Saddledome was a nuthouse when Jiri Hudler tied things early in the third and everyone in attendance could sense something special was in store. Stajan had never scored a playoff goal before, so he made certain his first was one to remember. At 15:43 of the third period, Stajan gave the Flames their first lead of the game and their first playoff series win in almost 11 years.
Caught up in the mayhem, it didn’t occur to me right away how amazing it was that Stajan was the one to score the organization’s most important goal in over a decade. It was my colleague Peter Loubardias who laid it out on our postgame show that night. As a father, he had to choke back tears while laying out Stajan’s path to arrive at that point. It was one hell of a moment.
AND HERE WE ARE
At the age of 34, Stajan still plays an effective role on the ice for Calgary. He does a solid job of driving play while still being hammered with defensive zone starts, and I believe there’s no one on the team better suited for his role right now. I know he’s taken a lot of flack this year, but the evidence says Stajan has been just fine; his underlying numbers back up what I’ve seen with my eye.
Off the ice, Katie and Matt have ensured Emerson’s legacy lives on through the Emerson Stajan Foundation and their work with the Calgary Health Trust and Alberta Children’s Hospital. Matt is one of the team’s true community ambassadors and Katie helps lead the way for the Better Halves and the incredible work they do for the Flames Foundation.
What’s next for Stajan is unclear at this point. With his contract expiring in July, he knows this could be the end of the line in the NHL, but right now that’s not really important. Here’s what is: just over 300 players have played in 1,000 NHL games and Stajan will join that exclusive club on Wednesday night.
The accomplishment in and of itself is impressive enough. To know the road Stajan has traveled, though, makes this something truly worth celebrating. Reflecting on all that has happened, seeing Stajan hit 1,000 games as a member of the Calgary Flames is the only way any of this makes sense.