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Eric Staal of Wild set for grand celebration

Veteran center about to become first member of 2003 Draft to play in 1,000th NHL game

by Dan Rosen @DRosenNHL / Senior Writer

Eric Staal keeps setting the bar higher and higher for his younger brothers.

The Minnesota Wild center can become the first player from the 2003 NHL Draft and the 311th player in history to play 1,000 NHL games when the Wild visit the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; TSN3, FS-N, FS-WI, NHL.TV).

Only San Jose Sharks forwards Joe Thornton (1,006) and Patrick Marleau (1,004) have played more games than Staal since the 2003-04 season. 

"It's humbling," Staal said. "When you look at how many guys have achieved that 1,000 games, it's pretty special to be able to hit that mark. I'm proud of it. I love being on the ice. I love playing games regardless of how you feel. I want to be out there. It's crazy how fast it's gone."

Not only humbling, but also a source of motivation, said younger brother Marc Staal, a defenseman for the New York Rangers. Marc is 30, two years younger than Eric. Jordan Staal, 28, plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, and Jared Staal, 26, played two games with Eric and Jordan with the Hurricanes in 2012-13 and plays for Edinburgh in the Elite Ice Hockey League in England.

"I grew up looking up to the guy and just trying to follow him," Marc Staal said of Eric. "Everything he did I watched and I wanted to do the same. I knew that if he could do it I was just as good or better than him at the time, or so I thought in my mind, so I could do it too. 

"I've still got a lot to do to match what he's done."

Eric broke in with the Carolina Hurricanes as an 18-year-old in 2003-04. He played 909 games with the Hurricanes from 2003-16, winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, before being traded to the Rangers last season.

He played 20 games with New York and then signed a three-year contract with Minnesota on July 1. Staal played his 999th game, coincidentally against Marc and the Rangers, a 3-2 loss on Saturday. 

"For me to get to 1,000 games at 32 is important and it's a good feeling," said Staal, who has 835 points (349 goals, 486 assists) in his NHL career. "I'm hoping for many more down the road."

There was a time last season when it was debatable whether Staal could continue being a high-volume producer.

"That was like the third question someone asked me when he got to New York," Marc said. "'How much does he have left?'"

Marc said he laughed and cited Eric's age, 31 at the time. It wasn't a ridiculous question, though. No one doubted he'd eventually get to 1,000 games, but would he do it as an impactful player?

Staal had 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 63 games before the trade last season. He hadn't scored so few points since his rookie season, when he had 31 (11 goals, 20 assists) in 81 games.

He had six points (three goals, three assists) in 20 regular-season games with New York, and zero in five Stanley Cup Playoff games. He was playing the wing on the third line. It was awkward. He looked slow.

"I knew I had some more in the tank," he said.

Staal needed to find the right fit, with an organization and a coach willing to play him in a top-six role, at center, and put him on the power play. Minnesota offered him all of that, and it might have gotten the steal of the 2016 free agent class. He is second on the Wild with 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists) in 70 games.

"We knew being around him that he was driven to bounce back and be a difference-maker," Marc said. "He had a year in Carolina when he knew he was on his way out and he came [to New York] and we didn't have it going either.

"He still believed in himself and I think he went into this season with a chip on his shoulder. Like, 'Here we go, I can still play this game at a really high level.' He's shown that. He's got a lot of hockey left."

But for now he gets to reflect on and celebrate what he has accomplished.

"You look at those 1,000 games, there's quality and quantity," Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. "He's done a lot in the game."

It's no small feat to be the first player from the 2003 draft to play 1,000 games. The class features a who's who of top players during the past decade-plus.

Marc-Andre Fleury was the No. 1 pick. Staal was No. 2. Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Corey Crawford, David Backes and Jimmy Howard were selected in the first two rounds. Joe Pavelski, Toby Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were mid-to-late round selections.

They are All-Star Game participants, Stanley Cup champions, Olympians, gold-medal winners, and World Cup of Hockey champions. Staal was the first player among them to win the Cup and would become the first to play in 1,000 games.

"It means a lot because you want to be out there, you want to play," Eric said. "There are days and nights when you don't feel your best, but sometimes you've got to gut it out and be out there. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of playing a lot and trying to do my best."

Marc is proud too. He always has been, even if the chase to try to catch Eric seems never-ending.

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