WINNIPEG -- An 18-year old kid the first time he sat, wide-eyed, in an NHL locker room, Eric Staal has, for all intents and purposes, grown up under the bright spotlight of the world's best hockey league.
Little could he have known that night, Oct. 9, 2003, in Sunrise, Florida, Staal would one day play 1,000 games (and counting) in the NHL.
"It feels like the blink of an eye," said Staal, who will suit up and play in his 1,000th game tonight against the Winnipeg Jets. "Time just kind of marches on. Most people can say the same thing, but in the hockey life, it just seems to go even faster."
While the speed of the game is one of the first things young players must adjust to once they arrive for the first time, Staal was warned as a rookie by veteran teammates to enjoy every moment of it. It's a different kind of speed -- how fast the games fly by -- that many young players lose sight of.
For Staal, it was veterans like Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis who helped guide and counsel him. Between the two, Brind'Amour and Francis would go onto play more than 3,200 games in the NHL.
"Talking with them, [they always used to say], 'Enjoy it, because it goes really fast,'" Staal said. "They're not kidding. Now, I'm 32 and it's really flying by. But I'm hoping I can enjoy many more years here before I hang it up for good."
Over 13 seasons in the NHL, Staal has grown up off the ice, too. Now married with three sons of his own, Staal is often lugging his own kids to hockey practice.
The support of his kids, his wife Tanya and from his parents, Henry and Linda has been critical in Staal's longevity in the League.
"It's meant everything. You don't get anywhere without support from your wife, your parents, your extended family," Staal said. "When you're out there, your hockey focus is so narrow. A lot lays on your wife, a lot lays on people around you. That support has been unwavering from my wife. It's pretty special to enjoy these milestones together because we've all been through it together."
Selected second overall by the Hurricanes in the legendary 2003 NHL Draft, Staal played 909 of his games in Raleigh, winning a Stanley Cup with the franchise in 2006.
But after nearly a decade out of the playoffs, Staal badly wanted another shot at the Cup. So he left his comfort zone and accepted a trade to the New York Rangers at last season's trade deadline.
Things didn't go well; Staal scored three goals and had three assists in 20 games as the Rangers were eliminated in the first round. After being held off the scoresheet and posting a minus-7 in five playoff games, Staal became an unrestricted free agent with plenty of prognosticators wondering if his best days were behind him.
On July 1, Staal signed a three-year contract with the Wild, determined to prove them wrong.
His decision to sign with Minnesota is one of the biggest reasons the Wild has gone from a team competing for a wild card position to one that could be in the mix for its first division championship since 2007, and just the second in franchise history. Staal's 24 goals are tied for the team lead, and his 54 points are second on the roster.
He's scored five goals and added an assist in Minnesota's past five games.
"For the most part, he's been what he was in Carolina for many years," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau.
"You look at those 1,000 games, there's quality and quantity," said Hurricanes coach Bill Peters. "He's done a lot in the game, and it talks to how good the player is, his ability to stay healthy and the perseverance. It's a great career with no end in sight, really. He's still young."
The "quantity" is an accomplishment Staal said he is proud of. Typically, when you're nearing 1,000 games, the quantity is possible as long as the quality is still there.
For both Staal and the Wild, it certainly has been in year one of their relationship, one Staal said he hopes will continue for some time. Could he approach the 1,731 games Francis, one of his early mentors, played in the NHL? Only time will tell.
"It's an accomplishment that means a lot to me, because I love being on the ice, I love being in games and being a part of the team game," Staal said. "Hopefully, there's many more games to come."