RALEIGH, N.C. -- The New York Rangers waited to take the ice Thursday morning when the Zamboni made its last passes across the PNC Arena ice surface. While most of the players crowded close to the door, Eric Staal stayed at the back of the group, cradling his stick around his shoulders, smiling, almost in anticipation.
"Just go!" one of his teammates shouted.
As the players urged him on, Staal trudged through his teammates, aware of how silly it looked to be the ceremonial leader onto the ice before a morning skate. Once he set foot on the rink he called home for 12 seasons, his new teammates quickly closed the door behind him and let him take a brief twirl.
"Typical," Staal said afterward. "I was just trying to show them the direction to the ice."
The solo skate is one of the oldest in the book of hockey pranks, but it shows where Staal fits on the Rangers after 14 games. A veteran of 909 games in Carolina before coming to New York on Feb. 28, the former Hurricanes captain already feels like he belongs.
"When you come into a total different surrounding, you're going to be a little more laid back at first to get comfortable with yourself and the group," Staal said. "I'm getting more and more comfortable with this group every day. It's about trying to fit in with a very good team. It's exciting to me."
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There were emotional moments to navigate when Staal prepared for his first game back in Raleigh on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV). As he approached the visitors' dressing room, he was greeted with a large poster, showing countless photos from his Hurricanes career. But the majority of them were pictures sent in by fans, just people who had posed with Staal during a decade-plus of hockey memories. At the top, the poster read simply, "#THANKYOUERIC."
"I thought it was really cool, actually," he said. "When you're somewhere as long as I've been, there's an attachment to the area and the people. It brings back a lot of memories with the pictures. I was pretty young in some of them. I'm thankful people took time to come up with pictures like that."
It helps that he continues to count one of his brothers as a teammate. For four seasons, Eric teamed with Jordan Staal as Carolina's 1-2 punch at center. Now Eric has Marc Staal, a mainstay on the Rangers defense, to provide the familiar feeling. All three brothers got together at Jordan's house Wednesday night, along with their parents. There was a certain amount of chaos, with kids running in every direction, but not much talk about hockey.
There is, after all, a game to be played.
"It's definitely an interesting game to think about," said Jordan, who has never played a game against both brothers. "Playing against one is always funny. Having two of those guys out there will be even more entertaining."
Until recently, Eric had never even considered the possibility of playing for a team other than Carolina. He was the cornerstone of the franchise, a role solidified 10 years ago when he scored 100 points and led the Hurricanes in playoff scoring when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
But eras change. As Staal's seven-year contract entered its final year this season, the Hurricanes were clearly facing personnel decisions. They had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs six seasons in a row. General manager Ron Francis stuck to a message that the franchise needed a new approach. He intended to draft and develop a team that could compete for the long haul. As a high-priced veteran, Staal knew his days in Carolina were likely numbered.
The result was an awkward last few months in Carolina. Staal arrived as an 18-year-old. After winning the Cup, and marrying and raising three boys, going to a new team did not feel like an option. If anyone asked, he told them he wanted to stay with the Hurricanes and be part of the rebuild that was showing signs of promise.
"For me as a person, the way I've been raised, you commit somewhere. That's what you do," Staal said. "That's your job. I've always focused on being a Carolina Hurricane."
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With a no-trade clause in his contract, Staal had control over his destination. The move to the Rangers cushioned the blow. And in the month since the trade, Staal has come to view this seismic shift in his career as something more than just upheaval. Few veteran players manage to play an entire career with one franchise. Once he accepted he would be no different, Staal began to see the value in working through the change.
"Now having this opportunity to be here and see what it's like in another organization, it's definitely special," said Staal, who has five points in 14 games with New York. "I'm glad I have this chance. Obviously the situation is good for me. I get to experience some big games and hopefully a long playoff run."
That's the appeal on the short term. After the season, Staal will enter free agency for the first time at age 31. With plenty of hockey left to play, he will look at the NHL landscape and consider where he might continue his career. And perhaps the decision won't be so much about where he feels comfortable as it will be about what possibilities lie ahead.
"It's not a bad thing," Staal said. "It's an exciting thing, for me personally and for my family, just for my future in general. I'm excited about it."