The zamboni had completed its work resurfacing the ice at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Thursday, but the Rangers players waited patiently by the entrance to the ice, not hopping on immediately for their morning skate as they normally do.
Instead they waited for Eric Staal to emerge from the visitor's locker room to lead them out on to the ice in a building he was returning to for the first time as a New York Ranger after 12 seasons as a member of the home tenant, the Carolina Hurricanes.
A smiling Staal barked to his Blueshirt brothers, "This is the way to the ice. Follow me!", and then stepped out on to the ice and began gliding across it. However, Staal failed to realize that he was all by himself out there. As soon as Staal stepped through the door and on to the PNC Arena ice, Chris Kreider closed the door behind him and the Rangers all stood behind the glass enjoying a group laugh until the former captain of the Hurricanes realized that he had been pranked and joined in on the laughter.
"That was so typical, guys doing that," said a smiling Staal after the morning skate. "It was fun. The guys here have been great. Now it's about the business of getting the two points tonight; and I look forward to it."
No doubt Thursday will feature a wide range of emotions for the 31 year-old Staal, who began his career as an 18 year-old with the Carolina Hurricanes, won a Stanley Cup in North Carolina in 2006, captained the 'Canes for six years, and now tonight returns wearing a different jersey and playing for the opposition for the first time in this arena.
"I don't know how I'll feel honestly, I've been through a lot with the Hurricanes and that organization, but I'm with a great group and we have a chance to clinch a playoff spot and hopefully get a big win tonight," said Staal.
Wednesday night Jordan Staal, Eric's younger brother and former teammate, hosted his brothers Eric and Marc and their parents at his home. Jordan told reporters this morning that hockey was not discussed much, but he did admit that he has been following's big brother's games and adjustment to a new team.
"You can tell he was kind of finding his way there, but last game he played unbelievable," offered Jordan. "He's starting to skate really well and show what he can do."
Thursday morning Eric drove from his home in North Raleigh to the rink he called home for 12 years, explaining to reporters that a flood of memories and thoughts went through his mind along the way.
Upon entering PNC Arena Staal made an unfamiliar turn to the left, where the visitor's dressing room is, as opposed to heading right down the hallway and into the Hurricanes room. As he walked down the corridor a large photo montage of pictures culled from his career in Carolina hung on the wall with a simple message attached to it: #ThankYouEric.
"That was really cool," Staal said of that hallway greeting. "When you're somewhere as long as I've been there's an attachment to the area and to the people. For them to do something like that brings back a lot of memories, I was pretty young in a lot of (the pictures), long locks, and some moments I'll never forget. I'm thankful that people came up with pictures like that and memories I'll remember forever."
Tonight should be quite memorable, as well, for Staal with the Hurricanes organization and its fans set to salute their long-time star in his return, not to mention a chance to face old friends like Cam Ward for the first time while trying to help his new team nail down a playoff berth.
"It'll definitely be different," said Staal. "It'll be a fun battle. It's one of those things where you've got to try and focus on playing the right way and trying to win."