A phone call startled me early that morning. Like many people waking up in Nashville hotel rooms, I was admittedly a little bleary-eyed when I leaned over and grabbed the room phone to hear Jim Rutherford’s voice saying, “We’ve made a trade.”
It was June 21, 2003, the day of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and the trade Rutherford made sent David Tanabe and Igor Knyazev to the Phoenix Coyotes for Danny Markov and a third-round pick. Not to minimize the impact of that move (Markov was later dealt to Philadelphia for a guy named Justin Williams), but it was, without a doubt, the second most important move of the day.
A few hours later, Rutherford stood on the stage at the Gaylord Entertainment Center and called out the name of a center from the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. I walked over and shook hands with a tall, lanky, 18-year-old kid from Thunder Bay, Ont., and escorted him to that stage. There, Eric Staal put on the logo of the franchise he became the face of for the next 13 years.
Ron Francis was one of the greatest NHL players of all time. Rod Brind’Amour belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But Eric Staal was our first true superstar. He was the rare hockey player to appear in the pages of GQ and FHM. A small-market guy featured in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. His mug even ended up on the front of a video game.
It wasn’t just for a pretty face. Staal debuted with the Hurricanes as an 18-year-old but exploded onto the hockey scene in 2005-06, when he racked up 45 goals and 55 assists for a 100-point regular season as a 21-year-old. He then led the entire NHL in playoff scoring – including a remarkable 15-game playoff scoring streak – as the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup championship.
It hardly stopped there. The name Eric Staal is attached to at least two dozen franchise records, from most goals (4) and points (6) in a game to consecutive 30-goal seasons (4) to career hat tricks (13). He appeared in four consecutive All-Star Games, becoming the first player in team history to win an All-Star MVP award. He won an IIHF World Championship and an Olympic gold medal, becoming the 23rd player in history to enter the “Triple Gold Club” (Olympic gold, World Championship, Stanley Cup). And he stands alone – by far – in terms of just about any notable offensive statistic in our North Carolina history.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Eric’s service to this franchise was his durability. Including the NHL playoffs, he missed just 22 games in his entire Hurricanes career. 22 – out of 952. Darn right that meant he played hockey games while suffering ailments that would have you or me on our couches asking for Advil or ice or a bucket or all three.
Not only would he play, he would stand up and face the media after even the most painful of losses, without complaint. In fact, the more painful the loss, the more likely he was to recognize that it was his responsibility as the captain and the face of our franchise to do so. Eric is a competitive person and he most definitely hates to lose, but he understood that speaking to the press was a part of his job as a professional athlete, particularly as a captain. He always fulfilled those responsibilities with class and honesty, never making excuses.
Though there is no doubt he would have achieved great success with just about any franchise in just about any market, Eric appreciated the opportunities provided to him by the Carolina Hurricanes and the way in which he was treated in North Carolina. For that reason, he was compelled to give back to this community. Over the past seven years, Eric hosted more than 150 charitable groups and families in suites at Hurricanes home games, through his Eric’s Entourage and Staal Family Foundation programs. Many times that commitment involved postgame meet-and-greets, which he would fulfill, genuinely, regardless of what had happened in the game that night.
I was 25 and Eric was 18 when we first met in Nashville, but it feels like we grew up together professionally and – in some ways – personally. My son, Franklin, and his son, Parker, were both born during the offseason in 2009. In 2011, he welcomed Levi and I welcomed Charlie, one month apart. His third child, Finley, turned one in December. My third child, Eve, turns one in May. It’s been fun to watch our families grow, though those Staal boys seem to be a little better at growing than the rest of us.
For all of these reasons and many more, today is not an easy day or “just part of the business” – not to me, nor to the management that made this difficult decision. We know him. You know him. Together, we’ve seen his ups and downs, witnessed his contributions on the ice and in the community and watched him represent our organization with dignity and class, without exception.
We were there when he first wore our logo, and now we’re here to see him put on another one. That skinny kid from Thunder Bay grew into a man we will always be proud to have represented the Carolina Hurricanes.
is the Vice President of Communications and Team Services for the Carolina Hurricanes.Email