Every day, either downstairs in the kitchen when at home or on FaceTime when on the road, before a half-out-of-it dad even has a chance to say “Good morning,” 5-year-old Levi — the middle of Eric Staal’s three sons — wants to know, “Did you guys win or did you lose?”
“I tell him, and then he sprints down to go watch the highlights,” Staal said with a big smile on his face.
Staal’s first season with the Wild is going as perfectly as he had hoped.
On the ice, the Wild is the best team in the Western Conference, and Staal has been one of the NHL’s best offseason pickups, leading the team with 16 goals and 40 points.
Off the ice, after starting his family in North Carolina, Staal really was intrigued by continuing to raise his kids in a wintry haven where hockey is a way of life. That was one of his factors in choosing Minnesota.
Behind Staal’s Edina home is a beautiful pond.
His next-door neighbors have built outdoor rinks. One has boards with mesh above with a net. The other has knee-high boards with two nets and lights.
“So we’ve been using them both,” Staal said, laughing. “I’ve got a snowblower now … so I help them out.”
The snowblower was a Christmas gift from wife Tanya.
“She was watching me shovel, and I was giving her a look in the window that this is no fun, and I think she got the hint,” Staal said, laughing.
Two or three times a week, Staal will go out on the pond with Levi and 7-year-old Parker. During Monday’s off day, all the neighborhood kids got to play with Staal, a Stanley Cup winner with 341 goals, 821 points and 973 games under his belt.
“It’s sweet. I mean, I love it,” said Staal, 32, who grew up playing hockey outside with brothers Marc, Jordan and Jared in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “It brings me back to the way I grew up and how things were in my hometown. I just think it’s cool here that even the outdoor rinks, they have practices all time.
“The outdoor rinks here are so nice you can actually run a little kid practice on there and have it be just as good as being in an indoor rink.”
Saturday is the 11th Hockey Day Minnesota, and Staal said, “I had always heard of it, but I didn’t realize how cool it was.”
This year there will be outdoor games at Lowell Park with the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge and St. Croix River Valley as the backdrop. The day will include 18 hours of programming on Fox Sports North, finishing with the Wild hosting the Anaheim Ducks.
Parker is on the same Edina mites team as Ryan Suter’s son, Brooks.
“They skate more than some NHLers,” Staal said. “Kids here, they skate three or four times a week. He skates in gym class! Add on the skating at home if you want, it’s just part of what you do here. I mean, if you’re going to go outside in the winter, you’re skating or playing in the snow. It’s pretty sweet.”
This is something his kids obviously couldn’t do in Raleigh, N.C. What has fascinated Staal is how fast kids improve here.
“I’ve watched how much better these kids get even from Week 1 ’til four weeks in, it’s amazing, especially my guy [Parker] because he hasn’t played a lot,” Staal said. “Like Suts’ kid, Brooksie, he has been on the ice you can tell quite a bit. My guy, in Carolina, he didn’t skate. Last year was his first year.
“He’s improved a lot since just being here. He’s loving it. He’s having fun. That’s the biggest thing.”
Staal said he’s one of those dads who never wants to force hockey down his boys’ throats. If they love it, they love it. If they don’t, “it doesn’t bother me one bit. I couldn’t care less. Whatever you choose to do is fine.
“In Carolina, my kids were never into it, which was fine with me. But they’ve definitely gotten into it a lot more being here, and that’s just natural because of the environment.”
And, as a dad who loves what he does for a living, Staal has witnessed how his children have fallen in love with hockey and the Wild since moving to Minnesota.
“Now being here, they’ve really gotten into the sport, which is so cool for me,” Staal said. “It’s so fun for me as a dad to come downstairs and hear them talking about the Wild or the game.”
He’d still love a “Good morning” and hug first, though.