ST. PAUL — About this time 14 years ago, Minnesota Wild veteran forward Eric Staal was a part of the high point of hockey hysteria in the Carolinas. In the 2006 National Hockey League playoffs, Staal played a key offensive role in the Carolina Hurricanes’ first and thus far only Stanley Cup title, in seven games played before raucous sellout crowds in Raleigh, N.C., and Edmonton, Alberta.
With much talk that the current NHL season — postponed on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic — could be resumed and the playoffs could be contested at neutral venues in mostly-empty arenas, Staal struggles to picture how that would work.
“It’s hard right now to envision, me personally, coming back and playing in a city away from your family for a couple months and in front of no fans,” Staal said on Thursday from his home in the Twin Cities suburbs, on a Zoom call with reporters. “I feel like that's a little bit difficult to envision, but there’s been a lot of things that have been difficult to envision getting to this point. So you'll kind of make decisions as time moves on.”
It had already been a trying 2019-20 season off the ice for Staal, 35, when by that fateful Thursday morning in March, players arrived at Xcel Energy Center for a morning skate prior to a scheduled game versus the Vegas Golden Knights only to be sent home until a time undetermined.
Less than two weeks earlier, Staal had missed a few games to be with his family when his father-in-law passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Like the rest of the NHL, Staal is now spending time at home, working out, trying to help his wife and their three sons, and waiting for news — good or bad — about what remains of the current hockey season. All of the talk gets overwhelming, he admitted.
“We've got a group chat with our guys. We’ve been kind of up to date for the last couple weeks. Hasn't been a lot,” said Staal, who was third on the team in goals (19), assists (28) and points (47) when the season was halted. “I mean, honestly, in the last little while, there's so much out there as far as rumors and this interview and that ... after a little while, you kind of stop paying attention because it's irrelevant, to be honest, until you get to something that's actual coming from the union.”
Drafted second overall by the Hurricanes in 2003, behind goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins), Staal spent parts of a dozen seasons in Carolina. He signed a free agent pact with the Wild in the summer of 2016 and saw his career rejuvenated, playing a six-hour drive from his family’s home in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
In 2017-18 he scored 42 goals for Minnesota, which in his career was second only to the 45 he scored in Carolina during that 2005-06 run to the Cup.
Naturally, he would like another shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup and bringing it to Minnesota for the first time. But after so many years in the league and so many trips to the playoffs, Staal said the intensity of a tight series in a packed building simply couldn’t be replicated under the neutral site/no fans scenarios that have gotten so much play.
“It’s too big a building and too quiet for that same intensity and energy. There’s nothing like it, to be honest ... You go to a Game 7, packed building, a Game 7 empty building is going to feel way different regardless,” he said. “There’s no way to manufacture that as a player. There’s just not. And that’s just the truth.
"Sure, it would still be intense. Sure, it would still be guys competing at their highest level and their hardest because that’s what we do and that’s what players do, and that’s what guys do. There would definitely be that still, but as far as comparing it to a full building in a Game 7, there’s no comparison.”