By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Imagine being able to point to one of the names engraved on the Stanley Cup — professional sports’ most prized trophy — and say that person not only is your workout partner, but he’s also your brother-in-law.
Florida Everblades rookie forward Sean Stefanski has been able to do that now for a little less than two years after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL’s last championship before the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
Cory Stillman, who is playing for the Everblades’ parent organization the Carolina Hurricanes this season, was on that Lightning team and scored a career-high 80 points (25 goals, 55 assists). Suddenly, the man who had been like a big brother to the 22-year-old Stefanski since he was 5 had reached the pinnacle of his sport, and he wanted to make sure Sean was there to enjoy it with him.
“That was quite an experience. He flew both families, his family and us, down, so I got to watch Games 5 and 7 (against the Calgary Flames),” says Stefanski, who has come on strong for Florida of late after not seeing much ice time early on. “I was fortunate enough to be in the room right after they won and it was awesome. I couldn’t be happier for him, he deserves it. He’s done just about everything now, and his name’s on the Cup forever.”
When Stillman, who turned 32 last month, signed with Carolina as a free agent on Aug. 2, 2005, he had no idea how closely linked he would be with the youngest brother of his wife of eight years, Mara. Their summer workouts together at the Stillmans’ cottage in Canada had become a regular tradition, but in the past it was Stillman helping Stefanski prepare for juniors in the Ontario Hockey League, where Stefanski’s father, Bud, was a coach.
Having proven himself in the junior ranks, Stefanski was ready to try the pros, and the new rules changes adopted by the NHL, American Hockey League and ECHL are designed to benefit players of his stature (5-foot-10, 195 pounds). Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford got to see Stefanski during CarolinaÕs combined rookie camp with Ottawa, which had invited Stefanski to participate, and he was impressed.
“He’s an energy guy. That’s the way he’s going to play,” Stillman says of his brother-in-law. “He’s going to run around, he’s going to finish checks and he’s a guy that the fans will enjoy watching play.”
Stefanski joked with Stillman after he was signed by the Everblades about the possibility of playing together in Carolina: “I asked him, ‘When are you going to get me called up?’ He says he doesn’t have that much pull quite yet, but this year’s been fun for both of us I think,” he said.
Right before the holidays in late December, Florida was on a four-game road trip that culminated Dec. 18 in Charlotte, N.C., about a two-hour drive from where the Hurricanes play in Raleigh. Since the game against the Checkers was in the afternoon, Stillman, Mara and their three children, Riley (7), Madison (5) and Chase (2), drove down to watch and got see the Everblades win 4-3 in a shootout.
“For us, a two-hour drive to go watch him play is well worth that,” says Stillman, who is in the midst of another memorable season with first-place Carolina. “It brings smiles to my kids faces and I think it brought one to (Sean’s) face that night, too. It was a 4 o’clock game, which worked out good, we didn’t have tired kids.”
The two were reunited again for Christmas as Stefanski flew up and spent a couple of days with the Stillmans. They always talk hockey, and Stillman constantly tells Stefanski to keep working hard and playing hard, advising him to leave an impression, whether it’s with a big hit, scoring a goal or even winning a fight.
Their workouts are competitive but also very beneficial to both players, and as Stillman puts it, “”I more or less have the program and he comes and follows it. … I might excel in one side on weights where I can beat him, and the other side, say in a running race, he beats me, so it’s good that we can push each other.”
From watching Stillman play in juniors both with the Peterborough Petes and the Windsor Spitfires, to following his NHL career in Calgary with the Flames (1994-2001), St. Louis with the Blues (2001-03), Tampa Bay (2003-04) and now Carolina, Stefanski is proud to call Stillman his biggest role model.
“I can’t really remember him not being around to be honest with you,” Stefanski says. “Him and my father are probably the main reasons that I’ve been able to play at every level from the OHL on. There’s so much they can teach you. Dealing with the ups and downs of the sport of hockey is such a big part they’ve helped out with, and personally as a player, teaching me about the things you need to do succeed.”
And on the flip side, Stillman doesn’t know what it would be like without having Stefanski as a brother-in-law. He described his wife’s personality as being the opposite of her brother’s, but also said he could see his youngest son, Chase, growing up to be like Sean.
“We have a different relationship besides being brothers-in-law,” says Stillman. “We are closer than just family and he’s a lot of fun to be around. He’s been great with our kids and he keeps improving as a player.”
Looks like the workouts are paying dividends for both of them.