– Almost 17 years later, it still feels like yesterday that Henry and Linda Staal dropped their jittery 15-year-old off in Peterborough, Ontario, for his first year of junior hockey.

That’s quite a contrast to a few years later when a self-assured Eric Staal, already considered a cream-of-the-crop prospect in what would months later become arguably the best draft in NHL history, began his third season with the Petes.

“He drove, all by himself. I’ll never forget it. Just happier than heck,” Henry Staal said of his oldest of four boys climbing into a bronze Pontiac Firebird for a 16-hour commute from their sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “Seventeen years old, he had his own vehicle. Horn was honkin’, 4 or 5 in the morning, like, ‘I’m gone.’

“Didn’t need mum and dad anymore. But, that doesn’t seem like very long ago.”

Linda Staal, as she sat next to her husband of 33 years in the lobby of a Tampa hotel last week, smiled at the memory. “No, it doesn’t,” she said.

Their precious Eric, now 32, is set to become on Sunday in Winnipeg the first player from the 2003 draft to play his 1,000th game. The second overall pick will become the 311th player to reach the milestone.

“It just means we’re getting older,” Henry Staal kidded. “When you’re a parent, you say, when your kids grow up, it goes fast, right? But it went fast. It’s quick.

“For us, it feels like he was just leaving home as a 15-year-old.”

Linda smiled again.

Hurricane force

Henry and Linda raised four professional hockey players. Marc, 30, plays for the New York Rangers and Jordan, 28, for the Carolina Hurricanes. Jared, 26, the youngest, played two games in the NHL and now plays for the Edinburgh Capitals in Scotland.

Every winter, Henry would build an outdoor rink. If it wasn’t ready in time, the impatient boys would badger him.

“Playing against each other, shooting pucks,” said Henry, 58.

“Every day after school. And evening,” added Linda, 57, laughing.

In 13 seasons, Eric Staal has missed only 22 games. If it had been 20, Game 1,000 would have aligned perfectly with where it all started for him — Carolina on Thursday night.

Staal played 909 of his regular-season games for the Hurricanes and 43 of his 48 playoff games. He won a Stanley Cup for the ’Canes, captained the team and ranks second behind Ron Francis in franchise history in goals, assists and points.

Last season, at the trade deadline, he was dealt to the Rangers, so this will actually be his second return visit.

“Besides the Carolina winning part, it was cool,” Staal said of the first return. “They did a video thing, which was probably more emotional than I thought because there’s so many memories and so many people I care a lot about even within the organization, from the off-ice staff to everybody at the arena.

“It pulled at my heartstrings. It felt weird being on the other side playing there, which I’m sure it will even this time. But I’m in a new place now.”

Minnesota nice

What overjoys Staal’s parents is that he’s in a better place emotionally now. Things got stale in young, rebuilding, bottom-budget Carolina for Staal.

Staal’s producing again, and his career has been re-energized in Minnesota. He got off to a fantastic start, experienced some admitted midseason doldrums and now is back to being a top player. His 23 goals are tied for the team lead, and he has six in the past six games.

“I’m just excited to see him play well this year,” former teammate Bret Hedican said. “I knew he was unhappy last year. It’s nice to know that you go into a new scenario where people actually appreciate you, boy, that’s a fun thing.”

Henry and Linda say their son absolutely loved Carolina, but … “you could just tell,” Linda said.

“You could just tell,” Henry repeated.

“You could tell on his face,” Linda said. “His face,” Henry repeated.

“It was just weighing him down, everything was,” Henry said. “[Carolina] wanted to change some things there, and he understands that. But it just wasn’t working for him, that way. But, now … great team.”

“Now, his whole look, everything. He’s just happy,” Linda said. “Really happy. He’s not so … taking everything on his shoulders.”

Support staff

The Staals have eight grandchildren — three belonging to Eric and wife Tanya. They have three boys, with the two oldest already playing hockey.

“In Carolina, they played a little bit, but in Minnesota, all of a sudden you get to Erik’s house and you see the pond and see the kids, and it’s just like déjà vu all over again,” Henry said. “They’re out there just firing pucks around, and skating on the outdoor pond.”

“It’s the best,” Linda said. “Just to watch them skate, it’s so cute!”

Maybe one day, there will be another generation of Staals in the NHL. For now, there’s one proud family excited to see Eric skate in his 1,000th game.

Eric’s folks, wife and sons will get to watch him be honored in person at Xcel Energy Center on April 4 before a home game against the Canes.

“It’s definitely something special,” Eric Staal said. “You go through the history of the game, not a ton of guys get to 1,000 games, so for me to be able to get there as relatively young as I am, it’s pretty cool. I owe a lot to a lot of people — staff, trainers, coaches, my brothers, my parents.

“I love this sport, and I’ve always tried to appreciate that.”

And, as his parents say, it goes quick.

“It’s not going to last forever,” Henry Staal said, adding with a chuckle, “Unless you’re Jaromir Jagr.”