Hockey

Canes' Jordan Staal tells how he and his family were tested by heartbreak

The Canes’ Jordan Staal (11) goes after the Sharks’ Joonas Donskoi (27) during the first period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the San Jose Sharks at PNC Arena on Feb. 4, 2018. The Sharks beat the Canes 3-1.
The Canes’ Jordan Staal (11) goes after the Sharks’ Joonas Donskoi (27) during the first period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the San Jose Sharks at PNC Arena on Feb. 4, 2018. The Sharks beat the Canes 3-1. cseward@newsobserver.com

In many ways, it has been the most trying hockey season of Jordan Staal’s life.

Overshadowing anything that has happened on the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes center has been the personal tragedy suffered by Staal and his wife, Heather. Their infant daughter, Hannah, died in February of a terminal birth defect.

Hannah’s death tested their faith, Jordan Staal said. The anguish was deep and the pain has been lasting.

“It has been hard year on and off the ice. Just life in general,” Staal said Friday. “It’s been challenging in many areas. My marriage, my faith, all that, has been challenged. ... We’ve learned a lot, we’ve grown a lot.

"It's been tough but we've got a lot of great people around me who have been amazing, my family especially and godo friends, as well. It's been really nice to see the support that you don't really know you have until you go through something like that."

The Staals were aware that babies suffering from anencephaly, as Hannah did, rarely survive. It’s a crippling defect in which parts of the brain and skull do not normally develop.

But the Staals, Jordan said, never asked “Why us?”

“Praising God through the good and the bad is what we’re all here for,” he said. “No one goes through life without having any hardships. This is our time and we took it full on.

“I thought my wife especially, who is one of the strongest people I know, did a great job of being strong for our girls and for myself as well. We were there for each other. I think it strengthened a lot of things in our lives.”

The Staals have two daughters — Abigail, 3, and Lilah, 1. They’re fun and energetic, Staal said, smiling as he called them a “handful.”

“They keep us busy, which helps,” he said. “It definitely helps in showing us how blessed we are, to have two healthy girls at home.”

Jordan Staal said the girls aren’t old enough to understand all that happened in the pregnancy. One day, but not now.

Nor did Staal, a team co-captain, tell all his teammates about Hannah’s condition during Heather’s pregnancy.

“We found out in November, December, with everything,” Staal said. “It’s not the easiest thing to just bring up. I wanted to tell everyone but I wasn’t sure when. I wasn’t sure telling them three or four months before was really worth it, because then you have to talk about it. And then waiting too long and it happening a lot earlier than we thought, as well.

“So it was kind of a fine line of when to tell people. Obviously my family knew about it and a lot of close friends. But it wasn't in the open and I definitely wanted to keep it close. I think it was good the way it worked out.”

Staal took a personal leave from the team the day before Hannah’s death on Feb. 24, missing three games. The team issued a statement Feb. 25 saying Hannah had died.

Jordan and Heather Staal, in a statement released by the team Feb. 28, said they had “prayed for a miracle.” The Staals said they were “absolutely amazed” by the support they had received and wanted to thank everyone for their concern, prayers and thoughts.

Through it all, Staal continued to play. His teammates and coaches, and Canes fans, were counting on him to again be the Canes’ best checking center, battling the other teams’ best forwards, and he didn’t want to disappoint. He felt that responsibility.

“Throughout the season there are times that were tougher than others,” he said. “It’s hard not to think about (Hannah) and so it can affect your mindset and your approach to what you want to do daily. You try to be professional as best you can and put it in the back of your mind when you're out doing what you have to do."

Forward Lee Stempniak, who sits next to Staal in the PNC Arena locker room, said, “I have a whole, 'nother level of respect for the way he played this year for all that was going on and then coming back.”

Staal, 29, said it has been more difficult in many respects for Heather, whom he married June 22, 2012, the same day he was traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Hurricanes.

“It’s hard, especially for the moms,” he said.

More recently, defenseman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators said he and his wife, Melinda, had lost an unborn son a month before his mid-April due date. Staal said he has tried to reach out to the Karlssons, to show them the kind of support and sympathy the Staals received.

“It’s not easy,” Staal said. “You try to do the best you can, and obviously take care of your family as best you can.”

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