As far as fan favourites go, he’s hardly on the radar. In the Flames locker room, though, it would be hard to find another who comes close.
And that’s arguably the biggest reason Matt Stajan, he of fourth line status and a contract constantly critiqued by so many outside the inner circle, is set to reach a milestone achieved by only 316 other NHLers before him.
Not that Stajan has been eager to talk about playing his 1,000th regular season contest in the best hockey league in the world. If there was wood to be knocked on in the WinSport hallway after a recent practice, the superstitious 34-year-old would have found it.
“I’ve tried not to (talk about it),” said Stajan. “The last week the questions are coming up. Other than talking to my wife about it a little bit, to take about some things and have family come out if the game comes… people around me talk about it but I’ve been trying to keep it very quiet.”
His superstitious nature — not wanting to jinx his good fortune a few games before landing the customary silver stick — was clearly battling his natural nice-guy instinct to be the kind of player who openly shares his thoughts and feelings with members of the media when his name is called.
As usual, the nice guy inside won out.
Even though Stajan’s time with the Flames has been riddled with major ups and downs in both play and popularity, he is an easy guy to cheer for. His impending milestone that comes Wednesday night at the Saddledome against the Anaheim Ducks should be treated as a beacon of light near the end of a lost season.
Calgarians need to embrace him as he has embraced the city of Calgary regardless of his circumstances. His path was not easy. But unlike this year’s team, which has been fragile and crumbling in the face of real adversity, Stajan prolonged his career by any means necessary — with determination and a grit nobody knew he had in him.
With all he’s gone through here, it’s difficult to imagine now that he identifies with the Calgary Flames more than his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, a team with which he enjoyed a more glamourous standing and statistics thanks to offensive chemistry with the likes of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov, and later Phil Kessel, before being traded to the Flames 445 games into his trek to 1,000.
He does. And more than half of his journey has come with the Flaming C on his chest.
“This is home for us now. We live in Calgary now and we’re going to be in Calgary,” Stajan said of himself, wife Katie and son Elliot.
Even the player wonders how those words are coming out of his mouth given the rocky hockey road he landed on when the trade that sent Dion Phaneuf to Toronto dropped Stajan in Calgary with a team puzzled by the deal, and a head coach whose style didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the newcomers.
“Not when I first got here,” was Stajan’s answer when asked if he ever thought he would be playing his 1,000th NHL game in Calgary, and wanting to stick around when his career was done. “The first few years were pretty tough. But a couple of years in, I kind of saw the way we appreciated the city even before we went through everything personally. We started staying here in the summers. We just like the lifestyle here. It’s a little more laid-back. It seems more for us. It’s why we’ve stayed here in the summers and it’s why it’s home.”
His struggles under Brent Sutter are well documented, but Stajan survived. He adapted. At times, even thrived. He earned another contract with the Flames by re-inventing himself under Bob Hartley.
“There’s been a lot of downs I’ve had to battle through,” said Stajan. “It’s never fun when you’re not playing. When you’re in a coach’s doghouse, it’s hard to get out of that. My first few years in Calgary were really tough for me, mentally, just to get through that.”
Then came the most gut-wrenching of his challenges in Calgary. A personal one. He and Katie lost their son Emerson just after childbirth in March of 2014. He could have taken the rest of the year off but returning to the ice with his second family was an important part of the healing process — and it happened to provide him with his most memorable hockey highlight.
Three games into his return, he was awarded a penalty shot on Viktor Fasth when Oilers defenseman Mark Fraser slashed him in front of the net. Stajan skated in, made a couple of moves and then fired a backhander just over the left pad and under the glove to give the Flames a 3-1 lead at Rexall Place. The score and the game was irrelevant to Stajan as he emotionally pointed and looked up to the sky thinking of his son before being mobbed by teammates at the bench.
“For my family, that was just a special moment that we’ll cherish forever,” said Stajan, recalling that as the high point of his career on a personal level.
His series clinching goal against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs serves as his most cherished team memory.
None would have been possible if he hadn’t persisted and endured through the low points.
“It’s not easy times but you get through it. And for that, you’re stronger, you’re better,” said Stajan. “It’s honestly helped me become who I am as a player and as a person — how you approach the game.”
How Stajan approaches the game is the one area no one can criticize him. His statistics may not be flashy, but his role on the team has been — even in those dark times — so much more than goals and assists. His leadership was key in the magical playoff run of just a few seasons ago. His mentorship will be missed when his contract expires.
But Stajan plans to stick around. His contributions to Calgary aren’t going to end as a citizen.
“It’s been special the way the community and the city has embraced my family through the things we’ve been through. Just the city as a whole, it’s such a great place with people that care. It’s a great place to live and we really enjoy it.”
You can bet he’ll continue his charitable ways, continuing to honour Emerson by raising funds for the neonatal intensive care unit.
Stajan deserves to be honoured, too. So put aside your disappointment on the season for a few moments on Wednesday and let the feels of the moment sink in as one of the league’s nice guys gets the spotlight for what may be the last time.