Hanging out at the outdoor rink behind his house with his kids is what Eric Staal cherished the most as he settled in with the Wild during his first season in Minnesota.
“That cool feeling of being out on the ice outside and kind of bringing back that memory of me as a kid and being out there with my kids,” Staal said. “That was the No. 1 thing I’ll remember.”
Outside at home is also where Staal found out he was no longer a member of the Wild after he took a call from General Manager Bill Guerin on Wednesday that let Staal know he’d been traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Johansson.
“It’s been a great fit here in Minnesota for me and for my family,” Staal said Friday on a video call to discuss the trade. “We really integrated well, not only on the rink for me, but my kids and my wife and to me that’s my most important thing. So when you get that news pretty much out of the blue, it kind of throws you for a little bit of a loop. But we’ve been able to process here a little bit more over the last two days.”
Staal’s initial reaction to the news was shock.
Amid rumblings about Mikko Koivu, whom the Wild announced Friday will not be re-signed to end his longstanding career with the franchise, Staal knew it was a possibility he could be moved. But he thought he’d at least start the season with the team, see how it played out, and perhaps be traded at the deadline if the Wild wanted to cut ties.
The 35-year-old has one season left on his two-year, $6.5 million deal. His contract has a 10-team, no-trade list, but the Sabres weren’t on it.
He hadn’t spoken to Guerin since the season wrapped in August and when he saw Guerin calling him, Staal thought Guerin wanted to talk about typical end-of-season matters.
But the conversation swerved in a different direction.
“He informed me he traded me,” Staal said. “It was brief, and that was that.”
During his four seasons with the team after signing as a free agent in 2016, Staal led the Wild in goals (111), points (240) and game-winning goals (23). The center tied the franchise record for goals in a season with 42 in 2017-18, made the All-Star Game twice and tallied his 1,000th point while crossing the 1,200-game threshold.
These accolades came after a down season he split between the Hurricanes and Rangers in 2015-16. But the Wild wasn’t dissuaded, giving Staal an opportunity to recalibrate with a three-year, $10.5 million contract before eventually re-signing him to his current deal.
“When I came to Minnesota, it was a team that was established and very good and I just plugged in,” said Staal, a veteran of 16 NHL seasons. “And when you plug in on a very good team, that confidence and excitement for the game came back really quickly for me and I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. It was a good group of guys that made me feel welcome.”
In Buffalo, Staal joins a team vying to improve amid a nine-season playoff drought despite boasting a young superstar in Jack Eichel. Staal is familiar with GM Kevyn Adams, winning the 2006 Stanley Cup in Carolina with him, and he and Jeff Skinner were also teammates with the Hurricanes.
“It’s definitely a different situation than where I have been,” Staal said. “But I am getting to the latter stages of my career, and I understand that’s sometimes how things go and now it’s a new opportunity and I’ll be ready.”
The effect his tenure with the Wild had on him, though, won’t soon be forgotten — especially the time outdoors with his three sons.
“There’s a lot of memories that I’ll keep for a long time,” Staal said. “But I think that biggest thing was just that excitement and that passion that maybe had faltered a little, I got that back just shoveling out the rink.”