Hurricanes captain Eric Staal’s low-key approach not without pride and passion

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

RALEIGH, N.C. – Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal has been preparing for the upcoming 2015-2016 National Hockey League (NHL) season in Raleigh for the past three weeks.

Similar to other Hurricanes players in years past, he and goaltender Cam Ward worked to get the word out to teammates that informal on-ice sessions would begin at Raleigh Center Ice in early August.

As Carolina’s longest tenured players, they’ve shared the highs and lows of their careers with the only organization that drafted them.

They’ve reaped individual milestones and recognition while also being part of a team that won a Stanley Cup in 2006.

As the 10th anniversary of that title win approaches, Staal in particular, has had to weather more and more scrutiny of why the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in the last six years.

It’s appeared that he’s not as passionate to win, or at least outwardly, his interview responses many times have become repetitive and seemingly less energetic.

While many professional athletes portray frustration more outwardly these days, Staal, at 30 years old, holds a more reserved appearance and follows a more NHL ‘old school’ approach to dealing with the scrutiny.

He accounts that to growing up “in a great community” in Thunder Bay, Ontario, as well as learning by osmosis, so to speak, and watching how the league’s best players conducted themselves, on and off the ice back then.

There wasn’t as much publicly discussed contract talk regarding players in the NHL then as there is today – at least for younger players to hear and read about.

Yes, it was reported, but it wasn’t what you focused on as a kid according to Staal.

It was more about who scored how many goals, and who won the Cup.

“As a kid, a lot of that information comes naturally, just with the environment you’re in,” Staal said.

“I grew up in Canada in a small town and it’s all hockey. It’s all NHL, so you pay attention and you know how it works. But, when you’re really young, you don’t really think about that stuff much. You just think about your teams and your favorite players. You didn’t really care what they made, or how they got there, or what they did.”

“For me it was Wayne Gretzky and Joe Sakic – two guys I idolized as a kid,” Staal continued.

Staal’s identification of the two Hall of Famers made sense when considering the outward personality that he has molded for himself.

Gretzky and Sakic were well-grounded individuals, at least who appeared that way outwardly, and who played the game with passion and at a high level with resultant success.

It’s evident that Staal goes about his business in a similar way, on and off the ice, in a low-key manner.

“I’d like to think so,” Staal said.

“I grew up with humble beings and we were happy in our lives, so I’d like to hold close to that, and be true to who you are.”

It’s how he’s carried himself up to this point in his career.

Staal now plays during an NHL era that is dominated by salary cap and contract talk, and one that frustrates and confuses many fans because of that fact.

There’s an image that has skewed people’s perceptions that players are in it just for the money, particularly older, higher-paid players, who don’t necessarily have to post high-level results to earn it.

For some that may be true, but not for Staal – he’s smarter than that.

Playing in the final year of his contract as one of the league’s highest paid players, the corresponding expectation for him to perform and reap the results of seasons earlier in his career, is a challenge he’s working to meet.

It’s his sense of pride that won’t allow him to show outward frustration about it.

“As far as me being the way I am, that’s just kinda’ how I grew up and I’d like to keep it that way,” Staal said.

“With the way the world is now, with social media and internet and all that, it’s easy to get caught up in things that maybe aren’t in the grand scheme of things that important.”

He’s not just showing up to get a paycheck.

He’s driven to prove doubters wrong and accomplish what he’s capable of.

Otherwise, he knows he may not play much longer.

“To be honest, I’m training and focused on this season,” Staal concluded.

“Obviously, beyond this year, I’m gonna need a contract to play in this league, but that stuff, to me, will take care of itself when it does. I haven’t been overly stressed or overly concerned with where that’s all at right now. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to and we’ll go from there.”