But when he arrives at the loading dock and makes his way inside, he’ll hang a left to go to his locker room instead of the right turn he’s made time and time again. For the first time in 924 games, Staal will be here as a visitor.
“You don’t really know how you’re going to react or feel or what your emotions will be until you really experience it. It’s going to be a lot of different, unique emotions just in general because of being there for so long, playing in that building as the home team,” Staal said on a conference call on Tuesday. “I’m not sure what I’ll be feeling, to be honest.”
Staal, who was drafted second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2003, was dealt to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28, a move that seemed inevitable by circumstance but was nonetheless still a shock to the system, considering the longevity and impact Staal had with the Hurricanes.
“Being in Carolina as long as I had been, you get to know people. You get to know the media, the fans, the organization, just people around the team in general. And you get to know them well,” he said. “When you’re not winning and you’re not in the playoffs for a few years in a row, it wears on you because you want to be there and do everything you can to help the team get there.
“Now for me going to this new opportunity, I knew I was already going to a great team that’s having a good season and has done good things over the last number of years,” he continued. “It’s just an opportunity for me to fit … and be myself and play. I’ve been enjoying that role.”
After spending his entire career wearing red, Ranger blue was a bit different.
“I never really thought of ever putting on a different jersey,” Staal said, admitting he “had a moment” when he first put on the blue sweater. “I got drafted by the Hurricanes, and this is where I was going to play. That’s just how I thought.”
Now Staal, 31, is a member of a club that, barring something completely unforeseen, is bound for the playoffs. It will be his first trip to the postseason since 2009.
“It’s why you play. It’s why I wanted to be in the NHL and why I want to compete every year. You want to be in the playoffs,” Staal said. “I think it will be a whole other ballgame once I get out there for warm-ups in game one of a playoff series. It will be a whole set of emotions that, quite frankly, has been way too long since I’ve got to experience.”
Since joining the Rangers at the end of February, Staal has tallied five points (3g, 2a) in 14 games, a stretch that featured a two-goal performance on Sunday against Pittsburgh, his first multi-goal game since Dec. 29 in New Jersey.
It’s a different role Staal is filling with the Rangers – going from being the captain of a team and playing 20 minutes a night to providing depth at center and logging ice time in the mid-teens – but one is he is embracing.
“Every game and every day I’m feeling more comfortable and more confident with the way I can help this team. I feel like I will be able to do that going forward. It’s been fun,” Staal said. “Walking in the room from day one, I’ve felt a part of it. That’s what you want as a player.”
It wasn’t the role adjustment that was most jarring, either. For a guy that played the better part of 12 seasons with one organization, it was the change of scenery, including the completely new gameday routine he had to settle into, that might have hit the hardest.
“That was definitely an adjustment. I actually just had this conversation with Marc the other day. I think I finally have found a routine and set-up that will work for me as far as pregame routine even in the dressing room, before games, meetings,” Staal said. “We’re such creatures of habits that when you move to a different place, it’s a lot different. You just need to find what’s comfortable.”
Not to mention the impact the trade had on Staal’s wife, Tanya, and their three sons, who initially traveled to New York with Staal for his first game before returning to Raleigh.
“When dad’s not around, it’s different,” he said. “A lot of FaceTime.”
Staal was speaking to reporters from his home in Raleigh. A three-day gap in the Rangers’ schedule allowed him to return to his family ahead of Thursday’s game.
“I’ve been spending a couple days here before the team gets here, which is great that the Rangers let me do that,” he said.
The players and staff in the Rangers room, Staal said, have helped ease the transition to the first new NHL club of his career.
“They’ve welcomed me with open arms and been first-class from the moment I accepted the trade to come there,” Staal said. “They’ve been as best as you can ever think of as a player, and now I want to play as hard as I can for them.”
Since Jordan Staal was acquired by the Hurricanes in the summer of 2012, match-ups against the Rangers have been family affairs. Now the balance has shifted. Eric said their parents plus his family and friends will be in attendance.
“It’s definitely going to be a weird feeling seeing him on the other side, for sure,” Eric said of lining up opposite Jordan for the first time in five years.
After Thursday’s game, what does the future hold for Staal? Perhaps a deep playoff run in search of his second and Marc’s first Stanley Cup championship.
“That’s the plan,” he said with a cautious excitement.
And then? Staal is, in fact, an unrestricted free agent.
“We’ll worry about that kind of stuff after the season and in the summer,” he said.
One thing at a time. Thursday’s game – his return to Raleigh as a member of the opposition, as strange and as foreign as that will be – is first.
“I have thought about that,” he said of returning to a familiar building with an unfamiliar group. “It’s going to be a different feeling walking in, there’s no question.”
is the Web Producer for the Carolina Hurricanes.Email