RALEIGH — Monday was Eric Staals 28th birthday, not that he was all that happy.
Not without hockey.
"Theres a lot of frustration built up for me, personally," Staal said.
Staal is the Carolina Hurricanes team captain. Hes in the prime of his career. The Canes in the offseason added his brother, center Jordan Staal, via a trade and then signed free-agent winger Alexander Semin.
Eric Staal was excited. After missing the Stanley Cup playoffs the past three years, the Hurricanes seemed poised to make a push both for a Southeast Division title and a return to the playoffs.
Then came the NHL lockout.
Eric Staal said he stands firmly behind NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr as Fehr attempts to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that will start the 2012-2013 season. But there has been so little apparent progress, even with the two sides seemingly close on the core economic issues of a deal: a 50-50 split of revenue and a way to honor existing player contracts.
The NHL on Friday canceled all November games. The league has withdrawn its CBA offer.
"I thought it was close to getting done but it doesnt look that way now," Eric Staal said. "Its hard to figure out, because it just doesnt seem like theres a care for the game. There is from us (players) and from our fans. But on the other side, it doesnt seem like it has anything to do with it. Thats difficult for us but probably a reality."
Jordan Staal was to have made his home debut for the Canes on Friday at PNC Arena. The Canes were to have hosted the New York Rangers, matching Eric and Jordan Staal against brother Marc Staal.
"That would have been pretty special," Jordan Staal said Monday.
Instead, Jordan Staal was in Rosemont, Ill., on Friday night. He played in the "Champs for Charity" game at Allstate Arena with such players as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It was fun," Jordan Staal said. "There were 12,000 people there and they were excited to watch some hockey. So it was exciting to play, to just get out there and feel a little bit of the game and have some chills."
It also was bittersweet. It was hockey, but just enough of a good thing to remind him of what he has been missing.
"Yeah, it was a little bit disappointing, after the game knowing you may not get another one of those for a while," Jordan Staal said.
Eric Staal was 20 when the 2004-2005 NHL season was canceled because of a biter CBA dispute. And now, to go through another CBA squabble?
Eric Staal, the Cane highest paid player, stands to lose $8.5 million if the entire season is lost. But it goes beyond the money, he said.
"For me, another year off my career, at age 28 when you should be playing hockey is extremely frustrating," Staal said. "Its years that are important to me and important to our team here. Weve got a good group of guys at ages where we should be competing with the elite teams. And now were not competing because of a labor dispute. Its frustratng. Theres not much you can do. You can just voice your opinions and go at it that way."
Eric Staal was among the 18 NHL players who flew to Toronto two weeks ago, to ask questions and be heard during a part of the bargaining session. He said the players solidarity has not wavered.
"Theres still resolve but guys are also anxious," Staal said. "They (NHL) have presented proposals where its basically take it or leave it, and we havent been comfortable accepting. Its extremely disappointing, but thats the way they seem to do business."
Staal couldnt recall the last time he either did not have a game or was not preparing for a game on his birthday. He smiled and noted he often has gotten a celebratory cupcake on a team flight.
But Staal, after skating at Raleigh Center Ice, was to spend the rest of his birthday with his wife, Tanya, and their young sons, Parker and Levi. There was to be a big cake.
"Ill enjoy the day with my family," he said. "Ill look at it that way."