CHICAGO – This isn't the first time Wild center Eric Staal has been beckoned to be a showpiece at the NHL's summit of stars, living up to the hype as one of the game's elite talents with each appearance.
But the invite he received Wednesday to participate in his fifth All-Star Game felt different.
Not only is he returning as a veteran enjoying a renaissance in his 30s, but he's also able to share the experience with his three sons.
"To be able to go through what I know it's about with my kids, with my boys, having them in the locker room, that part is what excites me a lot more," he said.
Staal was named the lone representative for the Wild on the Central Division roster, a fitting distinction since he's been the team's most consistent performer.
He entered Wednesday as the team's leader in goals (19) and points (37), and his five multi-goal games ranked tied for second in the NHL. Since Nov. 14, Staal is tied for the fourth-most goals in the league with 14. His 19 goals overall tied for 10th.
"A better guy couldn't get it," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He's such a good person, and he works, never complains, just works hard. Very happy for him."
Each trip to the All-Star Game has been memorable for Staal; he's scored at least a goal in every event (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011) and earned MVP honors in 2008 when he buried two goals and added an assist.
All those memories came as a member of the Hurricanes, the organization that drafted the 33-year-old in the first round (second overall) in 2003. His exit from Carolina in 2015-16 via trade came in the midst of a down season for the perennial scorer, who hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2006 and eclipsed 1,000 NHL games with the Hurricanes. Joining the Wild has coincided with a rejuvenation that has positioned Staal as an integral piece of the team's offense.
"You strive to be at your best and at the top of your game every year no matter what, and obviously for me I've been in that company before and experienced that for a number of years, and it's always a spot where you want to get back to," said Staal, who's in the second season of a three-year, $10.5 million contract. "Like I said a lot of times, it's a great situation and a great opportunity for me and I've been trying to do whatever I can to take full advantage and play at the highest level I can.
"It's a great group, great guys here, great players, and I'm just kind of fortunate to fit alongside and now to be recognized with this kind of honor, it's fun for me."
Staal has yet to star in the NHL's midseason showcase since it changed the format to a three-game tournament played three-on-three for a $1 million prize. The divisions will battle each other Jan. 28 in Tampa after a skills competition the day before, and Staal expects his sons — Parker, 8, Levi, 6, and Finley, 3 — will be eager to watch the Oilers' Connor McDavid and the Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews dazzle in person.
"They were excited," said Staal, who chatted with his family Wednesday about the news. "My middle guy had confidence, said he knew it. It was cool. They're excited. It's going to be a fun time."
Boudreau hopes Nino Nieder-reiter returns to the lineup after the Wild's upcoming bye week following the winger's latest injury setback.
The team announced Tuesday Niederreiter is expected to be out a week because of a lower-body injury. Boudreau didn't specify if this is the same left ankle injury Niederreiter suffered Dec. 22 that cost him five games. It's an issue that Niederreiter still seemed to be coping with even after he resumed playing Jan. 4, when he was moving gingerly off the ice.
After a back-to-back at home Saturday and Sunday against the Jets and Canucks, respectively, the Wild will be idle until it hosts the Lightning on Jan. 20.
"Whatever his injury is, hopefully he's not missing too many more games," Boudreau said.