When you look at the all-time Canes greats, the short list is heavy on franchise centers who wore the ‘C.’ Ron Francis was the pioneer and the led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals and within 3 wins of winning the Cup. Rod Brind’Amour was next and the leader of a team that won the Stanley Cup. And Eric Staal was the next one.
The first two icons
Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour are unanimous heroes that seem to elicit only good memories. Part of that is simply the passing of time that helps memories from tough times fade into the background. Part of it is that each achieved high levels of playoff success even if it was fleeting and not an every year event. But if you look back through the two icons’ history objectively, the Hurricanes were up and down during each’s tenure as captain.
Ron Francis captained the Carolina Hurricanes to the playoffs in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. The improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the latter campaign was the season when NHL hockey truly arrived in North Carolina. Sure there were a couple seasons in Greensboro prior to that and even one in Raleigh. But the early foundation of the franchise and fan base was built in the playoff run during the spring and early summer of 2002. But Ron Francis also led the team to a dead last 30th place finish in 2002-03 and a 23th place finish in 2003-04 when the Hurricanes franchise could have greatly used a follow up to the 2001-02 magic.
Rod Brind’Amour was of course the captain of the Stanley Cup win that is the pinnacle of Carolina Hurricanes’ success and was still the captain of the team for the next deep playoff run in the 2008-09 season. But Rod Brind’Amour also led the team during playoff misses in 2006-07 and 2007-08 that failed to build upon the success just like during Francis’ tenure as captain.
The third of the Canes captains who have led the team for an extended period of time is Eric Staal. While he was obviously a part of the Canes’ utmost success during the 2006 playoffs and was an unofficial leader of the team during the fun 2009 playoff run, he was unable to lead the team into the playoffs wearing the ‘C’ in 5 seasons (2015-16 would be the sixth if you want to count that).
Eric Staal was part of the greatest season in the team’s history. He was part of the hope and optimism that came from that season. He, along with Cam Ward, was the foundation of the team and the core of young leadership that was expected to lead to regular runs deep in the playoffs. And by virtue of those high hopes and expectations, Eric Staal was right in the middle of what has been a disappointing run of hockey for the Hurricanes hockey community.
Because of Eric Staal’s lengthy tenure and direct involvement in the good times and challenging times over the past decade, I think more than any other player in Carolina Hurricanes history Eric Staal is one of us.
With that comes mixed feelings and emotions. Informal surveys on what the Hurricanes should have done with Eric Staal’s contract situation this past summer yielded wildly different results ranging from keeping as captain and a core part of the team to trading him and moving on no matter what. I think this is a fair measurement of where the the most passionate portion of the Carolina Hurricanes fan base is right now. There is some amount of loyalty and optimism for the future, but there is also an offset of angst, disappointment, etc. from the team’s struggles in recent years. And just like the rest of us who are passionate about the team, Eric Staal sat right in the middle of all of those emotions.
Eric Staal’s rightful place in Hurricanes history
They say that time heals all wounds, absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think both apply to Eric Staal. He is an all-time franchise great like Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour. But there is a letting go that has to happen and some distance that needs to be created before we as a Hurricanes hockey community can fully embrace what Eric Staal means to Hurricanes hockey history. But ultimately when we look back in 10 years, I think Eric Staal will be remembered as the third pillar of Hurricanes hockey history right there with Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour.
My memories of Eric Staal
Over the course of Eric Staal’s career with the Hurricanes, I could name dozens of Eric Staal memories, but let me offer a couple of my favorites.
The summer of 2003: My first encounter with Eric Staal was at the Caniac Carnival autograph line in the summer of his rookie season. Being curious who this new kid was and what he was like, I watched him closely in the couple minutes working our way up to the autograph table. My first impression of him was that of a very polite and courteous kid. In street clothes at a team event as an 18-year old, Eric Staal had nothing of the aura of a hockey prodigy, and I mean that in a good way. He was very much a regular kid with unmistakable and likable sincerity to him.
Game 7 against New Jersey in the 2009 playoffs: My favorite goal of the dozens that Eric Staal scored was easily his goal in game 7 against New Jersey in 2009 to win that series in stunning fashion. Eric Staal was obviously a huge part of the 2006 Stanley Cup championship and even in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but the 2009 team was his team. Rod Brind’Amour was still the captain, but Staal was very much one of the team’s leaders at this point and lead he did in that series, the 2009 playoffs in general and of course in that spectacular game 7 win.
His class and character during both good and bad times: As noted above, Eric Staal captained the team during some down seasons, and he is big enough to shoulder his fair share of the blame for those seasons. But through even the deepest slumps, I never questioned his character or desire to help the Carolina Hurricanes be successful. Personally, I could feel his commitment in his interviews even when he was reeling off post-game hockey interviewisms, and I could see how personally he took it when the team was struggling. I honestly believe that he always wanted the best for the team and hockey community in an incredibly unselfish way.
In sports there are no guarantees as a player or a fan. There are players who do things the right way for the entirety of their careers but are not rewarded with even a single championship. And there are players who fall into it via circumstances. Winning is not something that a player has complete control over. There are too many uncontrollable variables. But playing the game the right way with character and being a positive part of a hockey community that extends even outside the team is something that a player can control. Eric Staal ALWAYS did that the right way. For that, I have a ton of respect for Eric Staal and happily consider him a permanent part of our Hurricanes hockey community.