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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Why Matt Stajan’s milestone needs to be celebrated

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.

THE TRADE

“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.

Season GP CF% OZS%
2009-10 27 48.0 55.0
2010-11 76 52.6 53.6
2011-12 61 50.1 48.6
2012-13 43 48.4 42.5
2013-14 63 47.6 38.5
2014-15 59 44.5 33.4
2015-16 80 43.8 35.4
2016-17 81 49.1 35.2
2017-18 64  51.8 38.5

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

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

  • I really enjoyed this, Pat. I’ll just chime in with my most vivid Stajan memory. I had the opportunity to cover games during the 2015 playoffs, and I’ll never forget the exhausted, contented smile on Stajan’s face in the locker room after the Game 6 win over Vancouver.

  • While the 2017-18 season will overall be remembered as a failure it still will have a few highlights besides Matt Stajan reaching 1000 career games such as: Monahan’s game winning goals, Flames breaking the Honda Centre “curse” and getting thier first win against the Oilers in two years and the night Jaromir Jagr scored for the Flames in a home win over the Red Wings. Gulutzan’s stick-throwing at practice will also be long remembered though I don’t count it as a highlight.

    • kirby

      Gulutzan throwing a stick and swearing at everyone was literally the best piece of coaching he did his entire time here. That was the only time this year the team actually woke up and played with some fire. Couldn’t make much adjustments, couldn’t shuffle lines very well, but man that stick throw was good. That was the only time i actually liked him. It was refreshing to see the coach yell the same things at the team that i yelled at my TV all year long. “WE’RE SO F—– GOOD, HAVE YOU CHECKED THE F—— STANDINGS? LET’S F—– GO!!!”

      The team needed a reality check, and they played their best hockey after it. Just too bad that message didn’t “stick” (ba-dum-tsss) and too bad GG had no ulterior method to get more out of these guys. The team played with a sense of entitlement like they were just waiting for greatness to fall upon them, and the coaching staff had no idea how to scheme up an advantage.

      Maybe he should have just broke more sticks.

  • MetalGearCody

    Loved this article. Even though Stajan has become more of a whipping boy than id like him to be you can’t deny everything he has done for the Flames and the city of Calgary. Will always have the most respect for Matt no matter what happens for the rest of his career.

  • I should be GM

    Well at least we can celebrate something silver! Instead of a stick however, I would prefer something that you could drink out of.

    Matt is probably one of the best guys around and I would never deny that. Unfortunately, the game has passed him by a while ago. Over using players that can’t contribute has seriously cost this team. Not only with things like not making the playoffs, but also player development.

    I wish this team was not as much of a charity.

    • I should be GM

      Seriously I’m getting trashed for speaking the truth?

      For all the bashers, let’s lock up Staj for another 3 years before someone else does!

      Btw great article Pat, I just don’t think this milestone should have been reached.

      • BringtheFire 2.0

        No, you’re getting trashed because we’re celebrating a human moment and you’re talking regular hockey.

        It’s your timing that’s getting trashed, not necessarily your comment.

        • Bob Hartley

          Exactly what BTF said. No one here thinks Stajan should be playing still but we’ve came this far so mine as well just get it over with. However hopefully it wasn’t at the cost of developing one of our prospects. With that said Congrats Stajan on 1000.

          • PrairieStew

            Actually – I do think he should be playing. No one has beat him out of his 4C spot, not Lazar, not Hrivik, not Lomberg….. It gets old when people lament the veterans when there is literally no one in the system that would represent an improvement.

          • oilcanboyd

            Our prospects needed to be developed at the Stockton level. Stajan deserved to play. Is there anyone in Stockton that could handle all those defensive zone starts as well as Matt???? Not on your life…they would need to be protected…how ‘protected’ players would that be in total?

      • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

        I think you are wrong that the game passed him by. His salary is out of line with the game he has left, but that can be said of a lot of 34 year old veterans around the league. That’s how this game works for them (at least up to a couple of years ago). Stajan has been a very serviceable 4th line center this year and I hope he is around the team next year, although I’d prefer it be in a coaching or community development role that lets us continue to enjoy the man’s incredible spirit.

  • TheDallyLama

    Wow great read. I remember that penalty shot goal, just an incredible moment when he pointed to the heavens. I dunno if Staj will be resigned or if he retires or whatever but if the Flames have any class this man will be offered some kind of front office job with the team. #1000GP

  • Mike Kennelly

    Thanks Pat for digging in the vaults and giving a deserving tribute to a true blood Flames warrior. It’s players like Stajan that bust thier hump thier whole carreer and don’t get the accolades they truly deserve.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    I’ve been waiting for this all season, thank you. It was perfect.

    Love you Matty, and thank you for becoming the only redeemable piece of that trade. It took a lot of hard work and it’s appreciated.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      Matty should remain with the org in one capacity or another. His special stick tomorrow is going to be silver, but he is pure gold. Org can’t let guys like that just vanish from the org. That has been one of the big failings of the club in the past.

    • deantheraven

      He looks like the best choice for that role, unless they bring Freddie back next year…
      I’d guess they’ll give Stajan a job upstairs if he hangs ’em up after this season. That would be best for everyone.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Pat puts the enormity of Matty’s magnificent milestone in perspective when he notes that just over 300 men have played a thousand or more games in the NHL. Frankly, guys who play a thousand plus games in the NHL should be given a gold stick rather than a silver stick just to highlight what an immense accomplishment it is.

  • Off the wall

    Remember when Stajan came to Calgary with a full head of hair?

    If you look at the picture it depicts Matt Stajan for who he is. A class guy a a great person.
    Not an arrogant bone in his body. Just down to earth. Always.

    I remember reading stories of how Stajan wouldn’t speak unless spoken to as a rookie. He had the ultimate respect for veterans and always went about life in the same way.

    I’ve been looking forward to this tribute for Stajan. 1,000 games is hard to fathom. In today’s game, I doubt we see those numbers prevail for many current players. 15 seasons, wow.

    The game has changed so much over the years, but one thing that will never change is having good people be a part of your organization. Stajan exemplifies that and if this is his last season, I’m glad it was with us. I will always have a soft spot for Stajan and although he’ll never draw the accolades of more gifted hockey players, he will always be a forever Flame to me.

    Pat, thank you for the tribute. And for your honesty in how it affected you when you were getting criticized. It’s nice to have a bit of honesty, because we all need a dose of it now and then.

    I will never forget Stajan pointing to the sky after he scored against the Oilers. I must admit my eyes were wet!

    Well done!

    • deantheraven

      Yup. You and me and every dad who knew the story had to get at least a little misty after that goal and salute. I still get shivers…
      Stajan’s going to get a long standing ‘O’ over here in mein haus in Deutschland! Hope he nets another GWG on the big night.

  • FL?MES

    What makes this even more significant is when you look at the list of current NHLers who have played the most games. Players like Luongo and OV are two examples of guys closing in on 1000 games. It’s a big milestone and as the NHL turns to younger and younger players it will get harder to reach.

  • Derian Hatcher

    I always find it interesting how people view pro hockey players. I have coached bantam and midget-aged kids for a long time (took the year off this year – couldn’t handle the entitlement of this generation – now I sound like my Dad! sigh). Anyways, I always chuckled when the teenage boys would tell each other which player “sucked” in the NHL. About 8 years ago, one of my best friends’ brothers, who played in the AHL, was home over Christmas and graciously came out to one of our practices. He gave some pointers and such and at the end of practice we did a fun 3 on 3 that turned in to a 1 v 5. He danced around the midget players like they were standing still and basically ran the show as one would expect from a minor-pro. In the room after the game, he explained to the boys that he was a career minor-leaguer who barely got a sniff at the bigs. He attended a few training camps and played in a few exhibition games but told the boys that he wasn’t close to being good enough to play in the NHL. The boys could not believe how fast and skilled he was but not close to being an NHL player.

    My point is, anyone who plays 1000 games in the NHL must be a good hockey player. Most of us (me included)have no idea just how good they are and how much work they have put in to get there. Congtats to Stajan.

    • Off the wall

      Loved it Derian.
      I played hockey in my younger years with a guy on our team who was much like your brothers friend. He played to keep in shape, (on our local team) but his minor-pro dreams were gone. He had a much similar story. He had so much skill compared to the rest of us, three strides and he was gone like the wind!

      I was fairly quick (at the time) and I could never sustain keeping up with him. He had a gear that was overdrive- me, I was trying to get my legs going as fast as my head wanted them too. Not pretty.
      I was excited to play with him, but really felt out of place in my abilities. I don’t know how many times he set me up in games, but it must have been frustrating for him to see me bury very few of them. It looks a lot easier on tv then it is in reality.

      I’m glad I play on an old timers team now. I don’t have any notions of trying to keep up with anyone. I just have fun and get some exercise.

      I suppose when we’re young we expect big things, only to realize we aren’t as good or fast as we thought we were.
      I think every kid needs this dose of reality. Your kids got a life lesson. Good for you for teaching them!

      Thanks for your input as an Oilers fan. You’ve always been a voice of reason and you are well respected here on FN.

      Btw, we all eventually become like our dads.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      Damn straight. Stajan having never been an NHL superstar never got tenure or free passes. Every year he came to camp and had to fight off the challenges of many younger players eager to break into the show and take his job, yet when the puck dropped on opening night, Stajan was on the team. That says a great deal about the man.

    • kirby

      Hey he obviously ain’t what he used to be, but he’s a serviceable depth forward / role player. I definitely don’t want him back at anything close to the 3+ mil a year like he’s making now, and it may be time to move on either way. But it’s not like he’s been dead weight on the ice.

      There are a lot of reasons this team underachieved. Matt Stajan’s 4th line role is pretty damn far down the list. But that said, if we can take his $3.1 mil cap hit and make better use of it, that’s a win moving forward.

    • oilcanboyd

      oilers will be a joke as long as they keep paying players like Draisaitl more than they are worth so early in their careers. Good luck with using a bunch of $1 million players to stay under the cap…

    • Dougiefred

      Glad Matt Stajin played 8 plus years for the Calgary Flames a classy organization and not the FN Scumbags. The geniuses on this sit rode Matt hard all season and have shown enough class to be quiet on this thread. With the exception of a couple of real winners.

  • kirby

    Stajan has been a great grinder for this team, a well deserved honor. Always kind of struck me as our Robyn Regehr of forwards. Nothing flashy, not many highlights to speak of, but just a tough steady team-first warrior who will always bring his best effort to the rink regardless of role or situation.

    If this was his last year with the Flames, i’m glad he at least hit this mark in red.

  • Glensfunnyface

    Not at all a Stajan fan but 1000 games is a great achievement. Should he have lasted this long….no, but he did. Contract and stats aside he seems like a well liked popular player on the team and that still counts in today’s NHL. Wish him the best in his future career and congratulations on 1000 games.

  • Alberta Ice

    Wish all the players this year had his heart for the game. That blocked shot at the end of the Oilers game to seal the deal spoke volumes to me of his example. Glad he will make this huge milestone- and, yes, that is something to cheer about on Wednesday night.

    • Raoul Duke

      In a season where the fans are screaming for the players to have some heart, Matt’s is by far the biggest. He brings it every game, if the rest of the team played like that we would be in the playoffs. Often the butt of jokes and criticism this is an honour he deserves. I was looking to give my tickets away for tomorrow night’s game, now that I know it is 1000 for Stajan I want to go and cheer him on. Let’s save the fire Gulutzan for another game.

  • buts

    His numbers aren’t good as he plays beside some weak players but gives a solid effort every night. Youth and speed has caught up to him….I wish him nothing but the best.

  • IUsedToHaveAName

    NHL.com’s stats section has records for 44 432 skaters and goaltenders that have played at least one regular season game since the 1917-18 season. Tomorrow night Stajan will become the 314th player to play at least 1000. That is 0.7% of all players that have ever laced up their skates in the NHL in over 100 seasons of history.

    Regardless of what you think of Stajan as a player, and he happens to be my favorite Flame, this is an absolutely incredible accomplishment.

    • IUsedToHaveAName

      Please edit in an edit button!

      Now that I’ve done the math properly, 7725 players in the NHL all time, adding Stajan to the top 4% of the games played ladder.