Staalapalooza's connecting Thunder Bay with NHL

ERIN NICKS

, Last Updated: 12:06 PM ET

THUNDER BAY -- Imagine if you were a hockey fan and lived in the middle of nowhere. Which NHL team would you follow?

You're probably envisioning somewhere along the Arctic Circle, in a town whose name places the over/under count on vowels at nine.

What if I told you that there was no need to make such an arduous journey -- that you could discover such a place right in Ontario?

Welcome to my hometown of Thunder Bay -- a city that not many have visited, few truly understand and the birthplace of a phenomenon that I like to call, "Staalapalooza."

For the geographically challenged, here's the lowdown: Thunder Bay is situated at the head of Lake Superior. It's eight hours from Winnipeg, six hours from Minneapolis and 16 mind-boggling, qualifies-as-a-murder-defence-if-you're-forced-to-drive-it hours from Toronto.

Such an isolated placement in the province makes for an interesting lifestyle. There's different fashion, an uncommon dialect and a distinctive accent (after 72 hours of being back in the city, I already sound like an extra from Fargo).

It also reduces the likelihood of any sports panspermia (for lack of a better term) taking place.

Think about it: Before the Senators arrived, Ottawa residents were largely exposed to the Habs and Leafs franchises, and the amount of both team's respective fans in the area indicates that the close proximity provided a significant influence.

However, in Northwestern Ontario, there is a complete lack of any adjacent NHL impact. There's only one way to influence the city's tastes: Through the media.

Now just imagine what decades of CBC's Hockey Night In Canada broadcasts did to a clean slate such as this?

Here's a hint: They don't call the Leafs "Canada's Team" for nothing. Even with a second franchise in the province, Thunder Bay rarely follows the Senators.

That's because the city falls into a broadcasting region amusingly known as "Toronto-West."

In Canada, if you reside on the sunset side of the GTA, it's all about the Leafs on the CBC.

But a few years ago, something shifted.

TALENTED FAMILY

Thunder Bay began to find an immediate connection with the NHL, and it had nothing to with a satellite signal beaming in.

It involved some talented players being exported out -- from the same family.

The Staals.

In a minute amount of time, the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins have captivated my home town.

Eldest brother Eric shot to stardom in Raleigh, N.C., after the lockout, and his spectacular play was capped with his first Stanley Cup last season.

Meanwhile, Penguins rookie Jordan Staal impresses with effective two-way play and a notable 24 goals and six assists this season.

Marc -- a Rangers prospect -- currently hones his craft with the Sudbury Wolves and is expected to crack the Blueshirts' roster next year. In addition, Marc has anchored Canada's defence on the victorious world junior teams in 2006 and '07 and was named the tournament's top defenceman in 2006.

The Wolves also feature the youngest of the siblings, 16-year-old Jared.

Three out of four brothers so far with NHL jerseys, none with a Leafs crest sewn on their chests.

The city is immensely proud of the mark they have made on the league, and it is displayed in every medium of their local media.

The Staalapalooza phenomenon is a once-in-a-generation event that has provided Thunder Bay with a true NHL identity.

And after many years of Toronto-based media domination, it's amazingly refreshing to have a home-town, headline-grabbing family to follow.

It's a connection -- a real one -- from the NHL to an insolated Ontario town that follows its every move, from the middle of nowhere.


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