By Tim Benz
Mr. Jordan Staal, meet Mr. Aaron Smith. Mr. Aaron Smith, Meet Mr. Jordan Staal. You two should grab lunch some day and have a chat. I think you’ll find you have a lot in common.
You are both adored by Pittsburgh sports fans. You are both champions. You are both damn good players and elite in the roles that you play. Neither of you seek the spotlight and you are both quick to redirect it when outsiders try to shine it on your faces. You are both blood and guts athletes who exemplify the need for individual sacrifice en route to attaining team success.
And for most of your careers you built reputations for being consistent, injury-proof stalwarts who hardly ever missed a game. Now neither of you can catch a break when it comes to your health. And it’s likely the next time either of you suit up again, it’ll probably be right around the time of the Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
It’s a shame.
Smith’s injury is an obvious bummer for the Steelers. When he got hurt in 2007, the Steeler run defense took a nose dive and the team got bounced in the first round of the playoffs at home. When he was hurt for a large portion of last season, the Steeler defense lost its reputation for being tough and gained a reputation for choking away leads.
The year in between, Smith was healthy. Coincidentally the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Smith sure helped make that happen. Now thanks to a triceps injury, Smith is done for most or the rest of this season.
The Steelers are refusing to end his 2010 campaign by placing him on injured reserve. Yet coach Mike Tomlin won’t forecast a potential return date for the veteran defensive end.
“It’s still going to be a number of weeks,“ said Tomlin Tuesday. “We are going to be hopeful… when there is hope.”
Well I guess that means there isn’t much hope now. Get good fast Ziggy Hood.
Staal’s status is even more depressing. The Penguins fifth year center suffered a sliced tendon in his foot during the playoffs last year. He recovered well enough from that injury to gut up an on ice effort later on in that cursed Montreal conference semi-final series defeat. But the ensuing infections he suffered later in his recovery have twice delayed a return to action.
At first Staal was supposed to be ready by the start of training camp. Then it was the end of the pre-season. Then it was Thanksgiving. American Thanksgiving as Jordan quipped a few weeks ago. Now it may be Christmas.
Sadly for Staal, there is no Canadian Christmas which occurs earlier in the calendar to speed a target date along.
And what makes the pill even more bitter to swallow for Staal is that his latest set back has nothing to do with his troublesome foot. He just got hit by a stray puck in practice Monday. The random bounce broke his hand. He’s out at least six weeks now. That incident occurred a mere 48 hours before he possibly could’ve returned against Dallas Wednesday night.
“It’s difficult on a lot of levels. But it‘s mainly difficult on a personal level for Jordan,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “He had a very difficult off-season and rehab. And then to get so close to coming back to playing, only to have another injury…It‘s disappointing.”
None can be more disappointed than Staal himself. When he started turning a corner and started finally feeling healthy enough to practice again, Staal broke a long media silence and discussed some of the trials of getting better. He bemoaned how badly his leg had “withered” due to a lack of exercise. He vented about a lack of strength and conditioning. And he voiced bewilderment about why his surgical wounds just wouldn’t heal properly.
And now to have something like this happen?! Getting hit by a stray puck hard enough to break your hand in practice is a freaky occurrence in and of itself. But after all Staal has been through to get his foot healthy first? It just seems as if fate is working against him. And the Penguins will continue to miss his presence.
“He’s a horse,” said teammate Pascal Dupuis. “He logs a lot of minutes. He plays in both ends. He was a runner up for the Selke Trophy. Of course a team is going to miss a player like that.”
Captain Sidney Crosby suggested Staal would be most missed when it came to reversing momentum during a game.
“When you see a team get a good shift going. And you see them keeping possession in our end for a long time. But you know Jordan’s line is going to go out there next and a guy like him is going to be following up that shift, it gives you a lot of confidence.”
Get better quick, Mark Letestu.
Without both Smith and Staal, the Steelers and Penguins are still winning. But clearly their roads have been more rocky with these players sidelined. Pittsburgh sports fans have come to realize the magnitude of their contributions through the absence of the players more so than watching them for sixty minutes at a time.
In the case of Smith, that appreciation (unfortunately) has been underscored now three times in four years. In the case of Staal, here’s to hoping multiple reminders aren’t necessary in the future.