Surprised? He is too.
“It doesn’t feel like that at all,” said the Hurricanes’ captain. “It seems like I just kind of started.”
That’s because, at 26, he’s achieved something that’s difficult for any player, much less for one that’s still quite young by league standards. He’ll become just the 10th player to play 500 games with the Hartford/Carolina franchise, and the fifth to do so exclusively with the Hurricanes.
Ever since Carolina selected him with the second overall draft choice in 2003, odds have always been that Staal would reach and surpass the 500-game mark in his career. The reason it seems to have snuck on him is the speed in which he’s done it. To put it in perspective, older teammates in Erik Cole (32 years old, 558 games played) and Joe Corvo (33, 506), have only recently passed the same milestone.
How did he get there so fast? The first reason is durability. Now in his seventh season, he’s missed just 13 games, two of which came due to personal reasons and not an injury of any kind.
“He’s played a lot of games and played through a lot of pain, and you have to in order to get to that number,” said coach Paul Maurice.
“There are some bumps and bruises as you go, but as much as I can, I want to be in the lineup,” said Staal.
The second is his early start. Despite his lanky frame as an 18-year-old, he entered the league straight out of his draft year and learned the trade firsthand, playing 81 games during a 31-point rookie campaign.
That 2003-04 season, which really wasn’t all that long ago, now seems like it as Staal, his teammates and his coaches begin to look back.
“He was real quiet,” recalled Cole, who roomed with Staal on the road that season. “It was like pulling teeth the first couple of trips to get him to talk at all. He just wanted to sit there and watch “The Simpsons” all evening.”
“It’s the physical maturity that a player goes through from 18 to 26,” said Maurice. “He’s a man now, and he can do almost everything better because his body can do what I think his mind wanted him to do. He’s able to execute some things that he was thinking about doing at a very young age.”
If not for the lockout year of 2004-05, Staal’s games-played total would actually be higher. However, most in the organization credit that year spent learning how to be a key player on the American Hockey League’s Lowell Lock Monsters, the Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate at the time, as his gateway to NHL stardom. When play resumed in Raleigh the following season, Staal posted a career-high 45 goals and 100 points.
“Not to say he wouldn’t have come in here and been a factor in what would have been his true sophomore year, but the year he came back from that is the one that really stands out for me,” said Cole. “He was a real special player and has been from that moment on.”
“He became a very dominant man the day he came out of the American Hockey League, and after that he was a star,” said Maurice.
Staal won a Stanley Cup that season and would go on to earn an Olympic gold medal and a World Championship, becoming just 23rd player in hockey history to capture all three in his career. He’s been to three consecutive All-Star Games, capturing the event’s Most Valuable Player award in 2008. He’s also rapidly climbing the charts in all kinds of franchise records, as he currently sits fourth in points (451) and goals (202) and fifth in assists (249). If he keeps on or near his current pace, stays healthy and stays a Hurricane, some of the lofty numbers posted by Ron Francis are within reach.
One of Staal’s more recent accomplishments is his ascension to the role of team captain. He’s earned rave reviews thus far, despite the fact that it still seems a little surreal to him when thinking back to the players who were in the Hurricanes’ locker room during his early years.
“I remember coming in looking up to Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley – guys who had achieved a lot in their career and were the elder statesmen here,” he said. “Now I’ve been here seven years, and it’s crazy.”
He’s in that position now, with youngsters Jeff Skinner and Brandon Sutter sitting on either side of his central position in the Hurricanes’ locker room. Maurice has praised Staal for the way he’s made himself open to all of his teammates, but particularly those younger ones who are still learning about the game, the team dynamic and the life of a professional hockey player.
Given Staal’s milestone, one particular piece of wisdom now rings especially true.
“You’re told it when you first start and we’ve been saying it to our young guys now,” said Staal. “It goes fast.”