RALEIGH — Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes has played in other All-Star Games and should play in more in the years to come. But there may never be one quite like the one Sunday.
Not one played in his home building, the RBC Center.
Not as an All-Star captain, drafting a team.
Not with a teammate, goaltender Cam Ward, in the game on home ice. Not with a brother, defenseman Marc Staal of the New York Rangers, a first-time All-Star this year.
"Being in Raleigh will be more special, for sure," Staal said. "It's going to be exciting. It will be fun."
And important. It will be a special moment not only for Staal, but for the organization he plays for and for the city that he represents in the league.
"It's a great event, and it's great for this area," Staal said.
Staal was just 21 when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. He was the leading scorer in the playoffs that year and deemed an emerging superstar of the league, and he has evolved into one of the NHL's best, most dependable players at 26.
Staal has the look of a star. He's tall, with broad shoulders. He carries himself well, with an air of confidence that never seems to cross the line to being cocksure or self-important.
"To be as young as he is, he's accomplished a lot, yet he's very humble and down to earth," said Ron Francis, the Canes' associate head coach and a Hockey Hall of Famer.
While easy to smile, Staal has dark eyes that can give off a slightly predatory look, especially when he's on the ice and wearing that No. 12 sweater.
But what is it about him that makes him an all-star player?
"It's his desire to win every game," said brother Jordan Staal, a center for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "You can tell he just has that fire and hates to lose. I think that's a big part of his leadership, the way he wants to win every night."
Staal is the Hurricanes' leader. A little more than a year ago, he took over the team captaincy from Rod Brind'Amour in what could have been an awkward situation but wasn't.
"You know what, the transition was pretty easy," Staal said. "It was made this way because of the guys in this locker room and because of Rod.
"If he wanted to, I'm sure he could have made it more difficult than it was, but Rod and I have had a pretty good relationship and played a long time together. He was more worried about me than anything else and that just shows the character he has and the person he is. It was fun to get my feet wet and learn from him as the year moved on and then this season having it from the start."
Staal sits in the center of the Canes' locker room at the RBC Center. To his right is Brandon Sutter, 21 and an alternate captain for the Hurricanes. On his left is Jeff Skinner, 18, a rookie and the youngest player in the league.
Skinner, one of 12 rookies chosen to participate in the All-Star Weekend, said he has observed Staal closely this season.
"He's had a great career, and he's still going to have a great career," Skinner said. "I think you just watch what he does, how he handles himself.
"It's not hard to follow. He's definitely a leader, and he's a great player and a great person off the ice. It's easy to learn from him."
A year ago, Staal was slowed by some injury problems and emotionally distraught after the death of his sister-in-law. But he has played in all 49 games this season, putting up All-Star numbers - 23 goals, 26 assists - and keeping his team in playoff contention.
"He's definitely one of the best players in the league," Sutter said. "He's so strong and such a big guy out there. When he's on his game he's a force."
Staal anchors the Canes' top line at center, meaning he faces the other team's best checking forwards and defensive pairs every game.
"He feels the pressure to produce offensively all the time," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "He has to produce numbers for us, and he's been very, very good. I think he's done an incredible job for us."
Staal is a focal point of the Canes' power play but also is used on the penalty kill.
"He's one of those guys who plays in every situation and there's not a lot of those kind of guys in the league who do that," veteran winger Sergei Samsonov said. "He's obviously a big horse for us. A lot of times, the way he goes the team goes.
On Jan. 18, a day after the Canes' 7-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, it was announced Staal would be one of the captains for the All-Star Game. Carolina was facing Boston again that night at the RBC Center and the Canes were in a dour mood after their morning skate, but Staal patiently answered every question from the media, agreed to every interview request within reason.
And so he will captain Team Staal this week, picking his team at the Friday fantasy draft. Staal certainly will hear the cheers of many Sunday at the RBC Center when his name is announced and he skates onto the ice.
"The ovation the home player gets an All-Star Game is pretty cool," he said.
And fitting, Ward said.
"He deserves it," Ward said. "I think he deserves to be one of the captains. He's the captain of our team, it's in his own city and he's just a good kid."
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