Eric Staal has taken the ice in a Carolina Hurricanes sweater 699 times in his regular-season NHL career.
When the team visits Minnesota – a near six-hour drive southwest of his hometown Thunder Bay, Ontario – on Thursday, Staal will notch game No. 700.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was this soon,” he said. “I’m proud of it. It just goes to show how fast it goes.”
It has been somewhat of a brisk journey to 700 for Staal, who logged 81 games as a rookie in the 2003-04 season. Ten years later, with Staal less than a week away from his 29th birthday, he still recalls moments from his first season in vivid detail.
For instance, his NHL debut. That’s something that will never slip his mind, even if his recollection is rather critical.
“Down in Florida. I had a chance to tie it at the end, but (Roberto) Luongo made a high-blocker save,” Staal said, referencing the 2003 season opener that the Canes dropped 3-1 after Florida sealed the win with an empty-net goal late. “I can remember to the moment having the chance. It seems like a long time ago, but yet it seems to be going very fast, if that makes any sense. Great memories along the way, for sure.”
One great memory occurred just five games after Staal made his NHL debut – his first goal, which proved to be the game-winner in a 2-0 shutout victory in Boston.
“Great pass by Jeff O’Neill on a two-on-one, and a moment I’ll never forget for sure,” said Staal, who has added 270 career goals since then. “It’s crazy to think about that.”
Staal would go on to record 70 or more points in each of his next seven seasons. He breached the 100-point plateau in 2005-06 with 45 goals and 55 assists and produced at better than a point-per-game pace in the shortened season of 2012-13, posting 53 points (18g, 35a) in 48 games. Staal ranks second on the franchise’s all-time points, goals and assists lists with only Ron Francis above him.
Staal was named as an alternate to Team Canada’s roster in the 2006 Winter Olympics, and he recorded six points (1g, 5a) in seven games as Team Canada captured the gold in the 2010 Winter Olympics in his home country. Additionally, he has thrice represented Canada in the IIHF World Championship.
“Those are moments in your career that you remember,” Staal said.
One constant that can be traced throughout Staal’s career has been his durability. He played in every game in six of his nine seasons, and twice, he played 81 of 82 games. He missed 12 games in 2009-10, two of which were due to personal reasons. It equates to just 14 missed games (12 due to injury) over 10 years.
Staal said there wasn’t much of a secret to his stable health, but rather learned habits.
“I think you have to credit, for me, my ability to watch other people before me, how they prepare and how they take care of their bodies off the ice. I think in the summer, you put in the time to make sure that you’re in the right state of mind and body to deal with the grind of a whole season,” he said. “There have definitely been many times where I could have sat out with something nagging, but my own stubbornness in my head is sometimes tough to get rid of. You want make sure you’re out there. You want to help your team. You want to be able to contribute every game, and for the most part, I’ve been able to do that healthy throughout my career. Hopefully that continues.”
Aside from the momentous occasions – there are certainly a few, not the least of which is the Stanley Cup victory in 2006 – Staal said what he cherishes the most in between making his NHL debut and nearing No. 700 is exactly that: the in-between.
“The moments day-by-day with just being able to play a game for a living,” Staal said. “The ability to come to the rink, work hard in practice, compete and play in a game, especially at home in front of our fans, those are things you never take for granted. It’s definitely special to me to be able to do those things.”
It’s not a stretch to envision No. 12 eventually reaching the peak of that list.
“Hopefully many more [games],” Staal said. “Maybe 700-plus with some great memories in between.”
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