Eric Staal taking prime-time role as hockey world descends on Raleigh

RALEIGH, – Eric Staal has seldom had a chance to bask in the NHL’s spotlight quite like this.

As the unofficial host of the league’s all-star weekend, the Carolina Hurricanes captain will be front and centre throughout. There was a charity announcement to attend Friday afternoon and 90 minutes of live television in the evening while drafting Team Staal.

Naturally, he can expect to receive plenty of love and attention from the hometown fans during Saturday’s skills competition and Sunday’s game.

The 26-year-old has been eagerly anticipating the weekend and hopes to use it as a springboard.

“I’ve been in the league for a while now and I’ve been part of a few all-star games,” Staal said Friday. “It’s in my hometown so to speak. … For me, I’m excited about the opportunity of being more front and centre as far as events like this go. It’s nice to showcase our market and our organization.

“I’m glad to be a part of that.”

Like the Hurricanes themselves, Staal tends to be a little off the radar while playing in one of the NHL’s less traditional hockey markets. There are few young players in the league as accomplished—he’s already a member of the Triple Gold Club, having won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes (2006), gold at the IIHF World Hockey Championship (2007) and Olympic gold last February in Vancouver.

One of the benefits of going to the draft format is the chance for the NHL to showcase players other than Sidney Crosby—who is injured this time around—and Alex Ovechkin. Even Nicklas Lidstrom, a six-time Norris Trophy winner and certain Hall of Famer, doesn’t always command the big spotlight.

Of course, Staal—like Lidstrom an all-star captain—will be the biggest star of all this weekend.

“The Staal family obviously have deep roots in our games,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “They are represented on 10 per cent of our franchises. I think they’re great ambassadors for the game on and off the ice.

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“Eric, in particular, I think this is a great role for him.”

The Staals have turned the weekend into a family affair. Brother Marc, a defenceman with the New York Rangers, will also play in the game and parents Henry and Linda have made the trip down from Thunder Bay, Ont., to watch. Even brother Jordan, a Pittsburgh Penguins forward, is in town and got in a round of golf with his father on Friday.

Linda Staal wasn’t overly concerned about whether Eric and Marc ended up on the same all-star team.

“I’m good either way,” she said Friday afternoon. “I’m just happy they’re both here and it’s going to be a wonderful weekend.”

The presence of the all-star game has created a noticeable buzz in the city. Fans wearing Hurricanes sweater descended on downtown Raleigh Friday to attend a fan expo set up at the convention centre.

Many stood in a long, snaking line to get an autograph from the team’s hotshot rookie Jeff Skinner, who will play in the game as an 18-year-old.

“This weekend is about celebrating our sport, bringing the NHL family together and having fun,” said Bettman. “It’s a big deal in the communities where we hold all-star weekend. You can see it, you can feel it here. …

“This weekend Raleigh is the centre of the hockey universe.”

It’s a welcome sight for Staal. He’s spent the last seven years with the Hurricanes organization since being drafted second overall in 2003 and is now raising a family in Raleigh after the birth of his son Parker over a year ago.