Carolina Hurricanes: Eric Staal Changed Everything

Jan 21, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal (12) and a young fan during the pre game warm up against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 21, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal (12) and a young fan during the pre game warm up against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s weird to think that one player in one random draft could completely change a franchise, but in all reality, it happens. One player can change everything.

The Carolina Hurricanes had achieved a lot prior to June of 2003. They were one year removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, they had a future hall of famer leading the way on in the ice in Ron Francis, and they made a big trade to bring in a great veteran forward in Rod Brind’Amour. But there’s one thing that the Hurricanes had yet to do – find that one player who would change everything.

In June of 2003, the Hurricanes drafted forward Eric Staal with the 2nd overall pick in the first round of the NHL Draft. Staal was a player that lit up the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes, and the Canes desperately hoped that success would translate to the NHL.

High draft picks are never guaranteed stars. History tells us that even the surest of top prospects can fail miserably. It didn’t take long for the league to realize that Staal wasn’t a bust, he was a star.

Everyone knows his numbers and the instant impact he made on the Hurricanes. Staal, as a 21-year-old, posted 100 points in 2005-2006 and led the team to a Stanley Cup.

This was the beginning of a transformation not only for Staal, but also for the Hurricanes. As the years progressed, through the best of times and the worst of times, the Canes slowly but surely became Eric Staal’s team.

It was a passing of the torch of sorts. It was Ron Francis’ team in the early 2000’s, then it was Rod Brind’Amour’s team after that, and on January 20, 2010, it was officially, without a shadow of a doubt, Eric Staal’s team. On that day in January of 2010, the Hurricanes named their crown jewel the captain. A 26-year-old established star who was the first of his kind in Carolina.

In his first game as the captain of an NHL franchise, Eric Staal scored 3 goals, leading his team to a 5-2 win.

There was something special about Staal being named captain. Brind’Amour was an incredible player and an even better leader on and off the ice, but it’s not like he was a home grown product of the Hurricanes. He had already reached star status in St. Louis and Philadelphia much earlier. That’s not a knock on Brind’Amour, a player that went on to take in Raleigh and the Carolina Hurricanes as his home, but it was a different feeling than when Staal was given the captaincy.

When Eric Staal was named captain, it was like watching the kid grow up and become a man. Staal was the man. It was his team, finally.

Unfortunately for the player and the organization, the Hurricanes played in zero playoff games with Eric Staal as their captain, and ultimately, the Canes bid ado to their franchise cornerstone on Sunday. It was a move that, for many, marked the end of a dreadful run. A failure by the organization and their supposed leader. The Hurricanes were never a contender during the time that it was Staal’s team.

Despite not making a playoff run, despite not transforming into a top tier team in the NHL, and despite Eric Staal’s gradual drop off in production, the organization will look back at the Staal era as an incredible one, a 13-year era that not only kept this team going in a non-traditional hockey market, but also kept them more than relevant across the entire league.

Eric Staal was nothing short of the perfect professional hockey player in Raleigh. He owned up for his mistakes and the mistakes of his team, and he gave others credit when the opposite happened. Instead of seeking praise and glory, he was humble. He was a true leader of men for the Hurricanes, regardless of what some fans may want to believe.

Eric Staal was the scapegoat, the leader, the franchise changer, the captain, and the true Hurricane. He was THE guy, and he knew it. He handled his position with dignity and respect for everyone around him. What he did in Raleigh is nothing short of remarkable.

The Carolina Hurricanes made a big decision on Sunday, February 28. They made a trade that sent THE guy somewhere else. It was tough not only for the fanbase, but also for Eric Staal, a man whose name has been rag dolled around in trade rumors for several years. He was a pro about the whole situation. Instead of complaining about it, he simply went out and played hockey to the best of his ability. He went through an absurd amount of adversity, adversity that would leave you and me wanting to give up on the spot.

He mentored young forwards like Jeff Skinner, who put it this way on Sunday – “He’s been huge for me. He’s been a huge part of my career.”

Eric Staal’s presence changed the hockey scene in Raleigh. He was the guy that all young local hockey players looked up to. Everyone wanted to be Eric Staal. He meant so much to so many people, even people who never even saw him in person. He’s a man and a player that truly was the face of a franchise.

He gave his heart and soul to the organization. He went through hell and came out on the other side willing to give even more for his team. He wanted his team to succeed. This was the team that he built. This was his team. He earned that.

Sunday marked the end of an incredible era that started on June 21, 2003, when the Carolina Hurricanes drafted Eric Staal, one of those random players in a random draft that absolutely changed everything.