A wall of commemorative photos welcomes Eric Staal back to Raleigh on Thursday.
RALEIGH, N.C. – First Eric Staal turned left to the visitors’ locker room at PNC Arena on Thursday morning, not right to the Hurricanes’ room, as he had done every day from 2003 through Feb. 28 of this year.
Then he walked by a hallway collage of photos and memories submitted by Hurricanes fans and assembled by the organization under the heading “#ThankyouEric.” Then Staal’s Rangers teammates refused to take the ice for their morning skate until Staal went on first.
A crescendo of peer pressure built as Staal reluctantly stomped up from the back of the line, and when he hit the ice, Staal’s teammates closed the door behind him and let him circle once on his longtime home rink alone.
The Rangers (43-24-9, 95 points) had a game to play and an opportunity to clinch their 10th playoff berth in 11 seasons with a win over the Hurricanes (33-28-16, 82 points). But Staal’s return so soon after his deadline trade to New York colored everything about this trip in the most emotional, reminiscent and visual ways.
“When you’re somewhere as long as I’ve been there’s an attachment to the area, to the people, and for them to do something like (the photo collage), it kind of brings back a lot of memories,” Staal said. “I was pretty young in some of the pictures, had long locks, and some moments you never forget, so that was pretty cool. I’m thankful that people took time to come up with pictures like that and memories I’ll remember forever.”
Staal did his best to shift everyone’s focus off of him and onto the game and his aspirations as a Ranger.
“I’m with a great group and excited to have the chance to clinch a playoff spot,” said Staal, who entered coming off his best effort in 14 games as a Blueshirt, scoring twice in Sunday night’s 3-2 OT loss to the Penguins at the Garden. “Hopefully we’ll finish strong here and go a long way in the playoffs.”
It seemed healthy, though, that Staal would return so soon to Raleigh and actually have an opportunity to clinch a Ranger playoff berth on this exact ice. Perhaps it would function as his final rite of passage prior to what he hopes will be a memorable postseason in a still-unfamiliar red, white and blue jersey.
LEONARD: RANGERS KEEP IT STAAL IN THE FAMILY
After 12 seasons with the Hurricanes, Eric Staal is now a member of the Rangers.
Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, who is on this trip along with president Glen Sather and associate GM Jim Schoenfeld, had the idea to send Staal to Raleigh ahead of time on Monday to see his family. And he did that because he knows this is still home for his new veteran forward, even if the Garden is now his home building for games.
Two of Staal’s three sons were bouncing around the Blueshirts’ locker room Thursday morning, happy to see their dad, before leaving the arena with his father, Henry, a.k.a. Grandpa. “Uncle Jordan” Staal, Eric’s younger brother and former teammate with the Canes, now must face up against both Eric and “Uncle Marc” after hosting the entire family on Wednesday night.
And Jordan recalled like it was yesterday his embrace with Eric on Feb. 28. The Hurricanes were already at the arena preparing to host the St. Louis Blues, and the oldest Staal brother told him the news.
“It was emotional,” Jordan Staal said Thursday morning. “It was a crazy time right before a game, so that added to it. I kind of had a feeling that it might be inevitable, but once it does hit, it still can hit you hard. We both obviously knew it might be the end of us playing together for a while, but hopefully he continues to play well for the Rangers.”
That’s the idea, Eric said, though he knew simply finding the right bench Thursday night might be confusing.
“I think I’ll be able to manage,” he said with a smile, “but if I get a penalty, I might be going to the wrong box.”