Eric Staal swallowed the last bite of his grilled ham and cheese sandwich, dipped a fry into ketchup, and said, “I’m a pretty bland quote.”
Not exactly true. But even if vibrant words don’t fly out of his mouth and into the newspaper, Wild fans won’t care — as long as the former Carolina star is able to reignite his career in Minnesota.
Staal will be given that opportunity after signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract. And he said he couldn’t be more excited after the last half-dozen years captaining a rebuilding, low-budget Hurricanes franchise with which he won a Stanley Cup in 2006, when he had a 100-point season.
One of four current NHL players since 2003 who has played at least 900 games and tallied at least 300 goals, 400 assists and 700 points, he is coming off his toughest season — 13 goals and 39 points in 83 games for the Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
Staal, 18 days shy of age 32, has his doubters.
“I do, but that’s the reality of what happens when you have a couple bad years in a row,” Staal said. “There are a lot of different reasons why things went the way they did, but I’m not making excuses. I didn’t play great and there’s a lot of things that I need to do better.
“I know I can be a very good player. So my focus July 1 [in free agency] was finding a fit where I’m going to be counted on, and get a chance and be on a team that’s going to win.
“This team is good enough to win and good enough to win now. I feel like this is almost the second part of my career, the start of the second half.”
The season opens Thursday at St. Louis, with Staal centering the Wild’s top line with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle.
“Who knows how it’s going to turn out? But from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t lost anything,” said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who saw the best of Staal when Boudreau coached the Washington Capitals from 2007 to ’11. “He can skate as fast as he ever did. Everybody told me he slowed down, yet every drill we do skating-wise, he’s led.
“His shot is the same, the way he handles the puck is the same, the way he practices has been tremendous.
“He’s a very smart person. Just a real pro.”
In the background
Staal’s personality and makeup is just as advertised. He’s reserved, doesn’t seek the limelight, just goes about his business.
• “They don’t come any better than him,” said Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, the former Carolina GM who drafted Staal second overall in 2003.
• “Strong Christian, good character guy, great family guy,” said close friend Matt Cullen, a teammate on Carolina’s Cup winner.
• “A real down-to-earth human being,” said Cam Ward, the Canes goaltender who began playing with Staal in Lowell, Mass., in 2004.
• “A total throwback,” said Ron Francis who, as Carolina GM, traded his longtime friend and teammate to the Rangers last season.
Staal is the type of guy who would rather sit at the back of the plane and read a good book rather than play cards or video games. He has read countless books on leadership, loves military stories like “Lone Survivor” and is currently into “The Unconquered,” a book about the Amazon.
In North Raleigh, he was part of a dessert club with Cullen, who lived across the street.
“Cully and I were just the beneficiaries,” Staal said, laughing. “Our wives were great friends and started every couple nights vice versa making a dessert and walking it across the street.”
Oh, and Staal wouldn’t be caught dead on social media.
“I’m good without it,” he smiled. “It has a little bit to do with upbringing and being from where I’m from and a little bit to do with coming in at 20 or 21 with [Rod] Brind’Amour, Francis, Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican. I really liked the way those guys carried themselves. I felt I kind of fit to their mold, too.”
Staal has been an iron man, missing only 22 games in 12 seasons — and 12 of those came in one year.
“He’s old school. He’s got a little bit of a farmer in him,” brother Jordan Staal said.
Linda and Henry Staal of Thunder Bay, Ontario, have four hockey-playing sons. Eric has played at least one NHL game with each: Marc, 29, plays for the Rangers; Jordan, 28, plays for the Hurricanes; and Jared, 26, now plays for the Edinburgh Capitals in Scotland. The boys grew up working on a sod farm that their father still owns.
“I loved it, loved going to work with him. Dad loved it, too. Cheap labor,” Eric said.
Linda and Henry soon will have eight grandchildren. Eric and his wife of nearly 10 years, Tanya, have three boys; Marc and Jordan each have two girls; and Jared and his wife are due with their first this month.
“A little Scottish baby,” Eric said, laughing. “Oma and Opa are a little more easygoing as grandparents than they were as parents.”
Staal is eager to play hockey in Minnesota so his boys can as well. The family has settled in Edina. Parker is 7, Levi is 4 and Finley is 18 months, and the oldest two are just “starting to get it.”
“There’s no better minor hockey place for kids, but if they don’t want to play hockey, that’s OK,” Staal said. “Sure, I would love them too because I love it. But if they’re into something else, I’m perfectly fine with whatever they choose. That’s how my parents were. They didn’t force us onto the outdoor rink. We went out there for hours to stickhandle and skate and shoot because we loved it.”
The entire Staal family started a foundation that focuses on giving back to families and children fighting cancer. It hits close to home — Tanya’s sister, Tamara, died from liver cancer at 24.
Eric, Marc and Jordan Staal own offseason homes on the same lake outside Thunder Bay.
“Myself in the middle, Jordan lives on the right, Marc on the left, which is cool,” Eric said.
Said Jordan: “It just happened to work out that way. I don’t know if they didn’t like Eric, but both his neighbors ended up selling. So it’s going to be pretty cool, not only for ourselves, but for the kids to grow up together.”
For the first time this season, one of the Staals will be playing in the Western Conference. It will be weird for Eric to be separated from Jordan, his teammate the past four years.
The families FaceTimed last month, and Jordan’s daughter, Abigail, was “bawling her eyes out because she wanted to play with my boys,” said Eric. “That’s the part I’ll really miss.”
“It was a little sad, I’m not going to lie,” added Jordan. “Both of our wives were taken down hard.”
Linda and Henry, however, will benefit.
“It’s a short drive. Well, five hours is still short from Thunder Bay,” Jordan said.
There’s little doubt Eric Staal needed a change. Behind Francis, Staal is second-leading goal scorer (322) and point producer (775) in Whalers/Hurricanes history.
Staal has been to four All-Star Games, was MVP of one, and led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2006 when the Hurricanes won the title.
But, Francis said: “Based on the direction we’re going as a franchise, the last couple years were frustrating for Eric. It’s tough in our market because he was the face for such a long time, so when things aren’t going well, it’s usually the face of the franchise that gets the brunt of the criticism.
“It’s just good for him to get into a different environment, be one of the guys and not the guy, and I think that’ll help him relax and just play.”
Staal heard appealing things from many teams during the free-agent courting period, but he felt there was a fit with the Wild after an enthusiastic phone call from Boudreau. He says he needed “to get back to having fun.”
“It was important for me to go to a team where there’s a buzz and a feeling every night, a building that’s full regardless if it’s a Monday night game against whoever,” Staal said. “There’s a big-time feel here. It’ll help push me to be amped up and ready every night.”
Staal expects to be one of the Wild’s top players. It’s hockey all the time with Staal, his friends and former teammates say, and that’s obvious watching him daily.
“He’s going to get the fans excited,” Jordan Staal said. “There’s a lot of potential for him to really take it another level. When a guy like that, as confident as he is, wants to prove himself again, look out. You’re going to see an excited Eric Staal, which is a very good thing for Minnesota and not for the rest of the West.”