Fast forward to today. Francis is now one of Staal’s coaches behind the Carolina bench and 20-year NHL veteran Brind’Amour has entered the twilight of his career, meaning the 24-year-old Staal has suddenly become the face of the franchise.
Few his age in hockey have accomplished more. In less than five full seasons, Staal has won a Stanley Cup, led his team in playoff scoring, been named the MVP of an All-Star Game, notched a 100-point season and donned the cover of a video game. This offseason, general manager Jim Rutherford rewarded Staal with a lucrative contract extension through 2015-16, in essence passing the leadership torch to the emerging superstar and now multi-millionaire.
While Staal is off to a slow start this season by his standards (19 points in his first 29 games) he still leads the Canes in goals (11) and in the plus-minus category at plus 11.
The highlight of Staal’s season has been scoring a hat trick in front of one of his boyhood idols, Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky.
“People automatically think if you put up 100 points you’ve got to get that much better and better, maybe score 120 points, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s a better two-way player, he’s playing harder in the defensive end and back-checking. That’s the only areas Eric needed to get better. His offensive game is there.”
While Staal recently reached the 300-point milestone in just 356 games, he’s approaching another important stat – playing in 300 consecutive games.
“That’s a lot of games,” Staal said. “A lot of guys get banged up and it’s pretty physical out there. For me, I’m grateful to be able to strap the skates on every game and be able to keep playing. The main thing is making sure I get my sleep, I’m eating right and drinking a lot of fluids.”
“We’re tough farm boys, I guess,” Jordan Staal said prior to a recent Pittsburgh Penguins game at the RBC Center when asked about big brother’s consecutive game streak. “Eric works hard and he doesn’t want to miss a game. He wants to be a part of every win and he enjoys playing. He’s going to try the best he can to be in that lineup.”
The streak is important to Staal on several fronts, believing it shows he’s dependable and consistent.
In fact, Staal has played in 355 of a possible 356 NHL games, a remarkable show of durability.
“I think his presence is important to that hockey club,” said New Jersey veteran John Madden, who has often been tabbed by the Devils through the years to help keep Staal in check. “He shows up every night. Whether he’s on the score sheet or not, he’s found ways to make himself useful and very important to his hockey club.”
The 6-foot-4 Staal broke into the NHL as a skinny 185 pounder. He now weighs 210 and can dish it out as well as absorb hits as the Canes’ center of attention.
“I knew I needed to get stronger,” he said. “I knew that was a big part of me being successful, of getting to the level where I need to be at. Now, I feel like I have the strength in my legs and in my core to be able to withstand taking hits from guys like Zdeno Chara and Colin White, then get out there on that next shift and skate with them.”
Staal grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on a sod farm, where he worked as an 8-year-old, rolling sod. Eric, along with brothers Jordan, Marc (New York Rangers defenseman) and Jared (2008 second round pick to Phoenix) helped father Henry with the family business, learning hard work and even harder-nosed competition on the backyard hockey rink.
“When they were on the outdoor rink they would whack each other with their sticks and somebody would get mad and throw their stick over the boards,” mother Linda said. “But, no fist fights or anything, just blue shins.”
Staal’s talent in junior hockey was well documented and the Canes selected him with the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft. But, there was no guarantee Staal would develop into the player he is today. It’s easy for scouts and general managers to measure talent, but drive, determination and the will to get better are on an immeasurable plateau.
“I used to think I was more of a playmaker in junior hockey, but I would say I’m a little bit of both now,” said Staal, who is in the NHL’s top 10 in shots taken for the second straight season. “I like to score goals, no question.”
Some of Staal’s scoring chances are unconventional to say the least, but that’s by design, much like some of the game’s all-time greats who have bounced the puck off the back of a goalie from time-to-time.
“I like to make sure I’m shooting from different areas.” said Staal.
“If you’re a goalie, expect the unexpected from Eric,” added close friend Cam Ward. “He’s got some tricks up his sleeves. I know his tendencies because I see him in practice every day, but I feel bad for those goalies who don’t know his tendencies.”
Staal may never lead the league in goal scoring or assists, but his combination of size and speed, and playmaking ability, makes him a difficult match-up on the ice and a chalkboard nightmare for opposing coaches.
“He’s such an all-around player,” brother Jordan said. “Just the speed and size and the way he sees the ice and how he can shoot the puck. He works hard as well. It’s not like he floats around, he’s always working hard in the corners and trying to create plays. His all-around game really elevates him to another level.”
“For a big guy he can really skate,” added Chuck Kaiton, the Hall of Fame radio voice of the Canes. “He can take the puck coast-to-coast and elude checkers. That, and he has good hockey sense.”
That intangible hockey sense Kaiton touches on is what makes Staal so valuable and allows him to elevate linemates even when he’s not producing on the score sheet. For example, Tuomo Ruutu is off to one of the best starts of his career.
“Any athlete of Eric’s stature wants to be better, and when the spotlight is on them they get ticked off when they’re not meeting expectations,” Kaiton said. “Eric has kind of a quiet ego or shall I say a will to be a better player.”
While Staal’s powerful skating stride is evident to fans who sit in the stands, his remarkable reach is what separates the all-star center from others that play his position.
“What surprises a lot of players are you’re real close to him and you think you’re going to get to the puck and he’ll reach out and grab it and do something you’re not expecting,” Madden said. “He’s so difficult to play against. When you have a guy that big, with skills and skates the way he does, it makes for a long night.”
“He’s one of those rare guys in this league who can make the difference in a hockey game,” added New Jersey coach Brent Sutter.
At some point, Staal will be the next captain of the Canes, a position he was well-schooled on during his early NHL peach-fuzz days. In other words, as we look back now, little was left to chance when it came to cashing in on Staal’s future potential.
“I’ve obviously learned from guys like Ronnie and Rod, guys who have been in the league for a very long time and have brought that work ethic every single day. I try to bring it as much as I can. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my career to far.
“I want to be that elite player on the ice and have a better night than the other guys,” added Staal. “That’s what the challenge is every night for me.”