Wild center Eric Staal wasn’t too familiar with North Carolina before he began his NHL career there with the Hurricanes.
“I didn’t even know what North Carolina was when I got drafted and where it was on the map,” he said.
But the state certainly became memorable to Staal.
It’s where he emerged as one of the league’s elite scorers, lifted a Stanley Cup in 2006 and welcomed his three sons into the world.
The family still calls the U.S. home during hockey season, albeit now in Minnesota, but Staal could eventually dig his roots deeper into American soil. He has considered applying for a green card.
“It’s on my list of things to do, but I haven’t started it yet,” he said. “But I think it’s something that I could see happening in the future, and I’m pretty sure it’ll depend on a lot of things throughout my career — where I end up and how it all finishes. My kids were all born here, and I could see a good chance of staying in the States when I’m done.”
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the focus for players tended to be on the journey of actually making it to the NHL. But once they’ve achieved that dream, many start to wonder about the destination.
And for foreigners who’ve spent a chunk of their lives in America, having the option to stick around after they’ve retired is intriguing.
“Once you’re established and you know that you’re going to make a career of it,” Staal said, “those are things you think about as time marches on.”
Non-Americans who suit up for the Wild are in the U.S. on a P-1 visa, which can typically run for the length of a contract.
Players can apply for a green card to live and work permanently in the U.S., but the process can be intensive, as the player may have to prove an extraordinary ability to merit the green card. Being a player in the NHL isn’t necessarily enough distinction to qualify, as the player must have impressive credentials — such as awards — to prove his talent.
Having an immediate family member who’s American sponsor the athlete is another option, and marrying an American tends to facilitate a much quicker acquisition — as coach Bruce Boudreau experienced.
“We went to New Orleans,” he said. “We did it in one day. It was simple.”
Boudreau recently extended his green card, which can be valid for 10 years, but cardholders can apply for their citizenship after five years or three if wed to an American.
“I’ve talked about it for years and then just haven’t done it,” Boudreau said. “I want to do it. … I would love to have American and Canadian citizenship.”
Winger Daniel Winnik has thought about applying for his green card since he believes he’d probably want to stay in the U.S. once he’s done playing rather than return to Canada. But since winger Mikael Granlund anticipates his post-hockey days will be back in Finland, the idea of signing up for American citizenship hasn’t even crossed his mind.
As for captain Mikko Koivu, who spends his summers in Finland but has played in Minnesota since 2005, he’s considered a green card but hasn’t started the application.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is almost a year and a half into the process, which he said fellow Canadian Tyler Ennis embarked on at the same time he did.
Spurgeon has accentuated his skill as an athlete in his application, with the Wild writing a letter of recommendation, but he’s also having his two younger children born in America act as sponsors; his wife and their oldest child are Canadian.
The 28-year-old hopes to wrap up the pursuit this summer, as he still needs to get a physical. Spurgeon isn’t sure if he’ll parlay the green card into citizenship, which would allow him to vote and run for office.
“Green card is nice because you don’t have to take a test,” he said.
But having the ability to live permanently in the U.S. would allow him to continue a lifestyle he’s known since he was a teenager.
“We’ve been here so long that it feels like home for us,” Spurgeon said, “and would never want to leave.”
• Kudos to Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman for unloading a pricey contract in a recent trade with the Coyotes. Chicago sent winger Richard Panik to Arizona, along with minor-leaguer Laurent Dauphin, in exchange for winger Anthony Duclair and defenseman Adam Clendening. The deal relieves the Blackhawks of the rest of Panik’s two-year, $5.6 million contract. That payroll flexibility is key, although Duclair could also provide a boost to the Blackhawks. He’s battled inconsistency throughout his NHL career, but perhaps a change of scenery untaps the speed and skill that make him an intriguing player.
• The host Lightning will be well-represented at the All-Star Game later this month. After superstar Steven Stamkos was voted as captain of the Atlantic Division, teammates Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman joined the roster — which coach Jon Cooper will oversee — although Hedman went down with a lower-body injury Thursday that will sideline him three to six weeks. Still, talents such as these are what make the three-on-three, tournament-style competition interesting to watch. The Penguins’ Phil Kessel and Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko were among the most notable names left off the All-Star Game guest list.
WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: 7 p.m. vs. Vancouver (FSN) | Saturday: 8 p.m. vs. Tampa Bay (FSN)
Player to watch: Nikita Kucherov, Lightning
Kucherov went into the Lightning’s bye week as the NHL’s point leader (60) while also tied with the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin for most goals (27) – an incredible first half by the 24-year-old in which he became one of six players in the league’s modern history to score a goal in his first seven games.
“To be able to go through what I know it’s about with my kids, with my boys, having them in the locker room, that part is what excites me.”
Eric Staal on being named to his fifth All-Star Game.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.