For twelve years, Eric Staal parked his car in the north parking lot at PNC Arena, entered near the loading dock, and took a right turn to enter the Carolina Hurricanes' locker room. It's a walk he probably made more than 1,000 times between games, practices, team events, treatments and other obligations.
Thursday, for the first time, he'll turn left.
"It will be a different feeling walking into the building," Staal said on a media conference call on Tuesday prior to his first game back at PNC Arena on Thursday night against his former club. "I'll still be coming from my house, it will be the same routine as going to a home game, just turning left instead."
A month removed from the trade that sent the Canes' captain to New York to join the Rangers for the stretch run, it's obvious that Staal is still coming to grips with his new surroundings. He didn't slip much during his twenty-plus minute call, but you hear him talking about a "home game routine" for a game in which he'll be on the visiting team and you can tell that it's still an unfamiliar situation.
It's also unfamiliar for Staal's wife and three sons, who hadn't seen their husband or dad for a month before he returned to Raleigh a few days early to take advantage of a break in the Rangers' schedule before the team joins him in the Triangle this afternoon.
"It's been tough on my family," Staal admitted. "I moved right away, but fortunately we all left together and they got to experience the first game [in New York]. They'll go back to New York with me on Friday. They're excited. We're looking forward to the adventure."
Facing the only professional team that Staal had known before his trade is going to be an experience unlike any he's ever faced in his career. Certain situations, like the video tribute and the other ceremonial aspects of the game, will cause some emotions that haven't been stirred before.
"I never really thought about putting on a different jersey," Staal said. "I definitely had a moment the first time I put it on because of how long I had been in another place. Being in Carolina for so long, you get to know people - not just the team, but the media, the fans, all the people around the team."
And while facing off against another Staal brother has been part of Eric's career since Jordan joined the Penguins in 2006, it's been a while since the two faced each other. "It will be weird to play against Jordan again," Eric said. "He's a tough player to play against, and once the game starts you just focus on what you're doing. But it will be a strange feeling to see him on the other side."
In the month since Staal was traded, he's kept tabs on his old mates, who have lost in regulation just twice since their captain was dealt away. Staal, who knows the locker room better than just about anyone, isn't surprised. "The system that Bill [Peters] has in place enables them to be competitive. Sure, they've wanted to grab the extra points when they've lost a few in overtime or the shootout, but the way Bill has the team playing I'm not surprised."
And as for his new compatriots? "This is a group that I would have fit in with no matter what," Staal said, even acknowledging that it has taken a while to become acquainted with the different system that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault plays. "I felt like I knew a lot of the guys from talking to Marc over the years. I knew a lot of people in the organization and they made the transition very easy both on and off the ice. They've welcomed me with open arms and have been first class since the moment I accepted the trade."
Staal also pulled back the curtain a bit on what happened the day he was traded, which was the first and only time he was formally approached by GM Ron Francis to waive his no-trade clause. "We didn't talk about free agency [that day]. It was an emotional day, what with the trade and signing the waiver. Nothing else came up other than having the opportunity to join the Rangers. I want to play as hard as I can for them, and we'll worry about everything else in the summer."
At one point during the conference call, Staal's sons came running into the room asking their dad if he would join them for lunch, a touching reminder that as much as things have changed in his life since February 29, certain things never change. He'll always be their dad, no matter where he's playing and where the family is living, and while those boys will be decked out in Ranger blue on Thursday night, there will be a large contingent of fans wearing red - some even wearing his former jersey - who will cheer just as loud for him as if they were a part of his family as well.