But it will be different Thursday night. When he walks into the arena, he’ll make a left into the visitors’ dressing room.
The former Hurricanes captain and face of the franchise will play his first game as a visitor at PNC Arena with his new teammates, the New York Rangers.
“You don’t really know how you’re going to feel … until you really experience it,” Staal said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of unique, different emotions just in general because of being there and being there so long. … It’s going to be a lot different.”
Trades happen all the time in pro sports, but for Carolina, this deal was different.
The team’s second overall pick in 2003, Staal led the team with 28 post-season points during their Stanley Cup run three years later. He took over as captain in 2010, captained an All-Star team played here the following year and remains the franchise’s career leader in nearly every category, including 909 games played, 332 goals and 775 points.
But with his seven-year, $55.75 million contract expiring this summer, the 31-year-old, four-time All-Star and Carolina general manager Ron Francis couldn’t agree on a new deal. So on the day before the deadline — and after he’d arrived at the arena for that afternoon’s game against St. Louis — the Hurricanes dealt him to the Rangers in exchange for a prospect playing in Finland and two second-round draft picks.
He’s due to become an unrestricted free agent over the summer but says the possibility of being a Hurricane again down the road didn’t come up when he and Francis discussed the trade.
“Obviously, it was an emotional day, just the trade and then signing the (no-trade) waiver and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Never really talked a lot about anything otherwise, other than having this opportunity, and when I got to New York, just focused on this year with them and bringing everything I can to this team because they’ve welcomed me with open arms. … We’ll worry about that kind of stuff after the season and into the summer.”
Staal has three goals and seven assists in 14 games with his new team while averaging 16:22 of ice time after never averaging less than 18:45 in any season with Carolina since he was a rookie.
But barring a total collapse, he’ll skate in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when the Hurricanes made their only post-season appearance since winning the Cup a decade ago. The Rangers have 95 points, second-most in the East.
“It’s why you play. It’s why I wanted to be in the NHL and why I want to compete every year. … I think it’ll be a whole other ball game once I actually get out there for warmups in Game 1 of a playoff series. I think it’ll be a whole set of emotions that, to be quite frank, has been way too long since I got to experience.”
This homecoming also marks the latest all-Staal reunion. Jordan Staal, who the Hurricanes acquired from Pittsburgh four years ago, goes up against a Rangers team with Eric and another brother, defenceman Marc Staal.
“I think it’ll be weird just because I used to play against him when he was in a Penguin uniform, and now he’s in a Hurricane uniform that I was wearing,” Eric Staal said.
The Rangers haven’t played since Sunday, so that break in the schedule cleared time for Staal to head back to North Carolina early to spend some time with family. He’s staying at his north Raleigh house instead of the team hotel and will make that familiar drive to the arena, even though he’ll turn down that unfamiliar hallway to the guests’ dressing room instead of the other one, the one he used to call home.
“The routine will be very, very similar,” he said, “except that we’ll go to the left instead of the right.”