The accolades Wild center Eric Staal has accumulated in his illustrious NHL career weren’t what he dreamed of when he skated with his brothers on their outdoor rink growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Staal’s hopes were much simpler.
“It’s just make it,” he said. “Play one game. Play one shift. Be in a practice. That’s first and foremost.”
In the 16 years since his debut, Staal has easily exceeded those targets, and he continues to add to his stature by recently recording his 1,000th point after skating in his 1,200th game.
Despite accomplishing more than most have in the sport, the 35-year-old’s desire to compete and love for the game haven’t wavered — commitment that will keep making his journey through the NHL a special one.
“It’s the passion I had for the game as a young kid and realizing my dream of being here,” Staal said. “And then once I’m here, it’s just knowing all the other people that had the same dream as me, they’re not here. So it’s hey, I should enjoy this regardless of the night or whatever the moment because it’s not easy. It’s hard.
“So when you have success or there are moments here that you go, ‘Wow,’ you gotta enjoy it. You gotta soak it in because people are watching you and people are wanting to do what you do and you’re forever grateful for that.”
After potting his 1,000th point Sunday on his 12th goal of the season, becoming the 89th player in NHL history to reach the milestone and only the sixth active, Staal reflected briefly — especially since he was inundated with messages of congratulations once his shot from inside the right faceoff circle sailed top-shelf.
“I actually really wanted that [assist], so it worked out perfect that I was able to pass it to him,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Couldn’t have happened to a better person. He is a class act on and off the ice.”
But not until he’s done playing will the magnitude of what Staal has achieved probably sink in because right now, there’s still work to do.
Staal’s start to the season was unusual by his standards, an eight-game goal drought, the longest he had gone in his 16-season career before scoring his first. But he has rebounded, with his 13 tallies the second most on the Wild and 30 points tops. Nine of his points (five goals) have come in the past five games, a stretch in which the injury-plagued Wild has needed Staal to provide stability as its No. 1 center.
“I wasn’t at the level I wanted to be at,” said Staal, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract extension in February. “I was a little banged up and grinding. ... But I’ve never made any excuses. I knew I needed to be better.”
Even after colliding with a linesman last week along the boards, a scary-looking hit that knocked him out of the action, Staal was back in the lineup the next game. And he kept playing Tuesday after falling to the ice and getting cross-checked from behind by the Golden Knights’ Deryk Engelland, skating off slowly.
“You always want to have those guys that are in roles [to] contribute to do it,” said Staal, who described his status as 100 percent.
“I’m in that spot, and I’ll do my best to try and help us get results and wins because that’s what it’s all about.”
He has done that throughout his career, during which his three brothers — Marc, Jodan and Jared — all played in the NHL. Eric Staal has eclipsed 400 goals, scoring 40 or more three times, and is closing in on 600 assists.
A member of the Triple Gold Club after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup and gold medals with Canada at the 2007 IIHF World Championship and 2010 Olympics, he also has been a captain and played in five All-Star Games, living up to the billing of being the second overall draft pick in 2003 by the Hurricanes.
“When I was in Washington, he was in the prime of his career and we played Carolina all the time,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “My whole thinking was if we could contain Eric Staal, we’d win the game.”
It’s clear to Suter where this impact should take Staal, and that’s right to the Hall of Fame once he’s done playing, an opinion Suter has shared with Staal.
In the meantime, Staal is going to keep the same approach that has gotten him this far.
“For him to say that, that means a lot,” he said of Suter’s prophecy. “… [But] I’m just going to play.”
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and the NHL for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org