A wooden swing sways back and forth as a breeze dances around the patio Saturday morning outside a Tampa hotel.
Nearby, and in front of a pond that cautions for alligators, Wild center Eric Staal greets his family.
Eight-year-old Parker is already clad in the Central Division jersey that matches the one Staal will wear as the Wild’s lone representative in his fifth appearance at the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday at Amalie Arena.
Levi, 6, is tossing a puck in the air, and 3-year-old Finley — sporting a Wild sweater — is running through the grass. Soon after, he starts an impromptu game of peekaboo with mom Tanya.
“Sit on this chair,” Parker instructs Levi before he begins to push the lounger as a smile spreads across Levi’s face.
It’s moments like this, or when his kids are scaling a tree, assembling Legos or sledding through the snow, that Staal is reminded of his own upbringing near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The eldest of four boys, Staal became the torchbearer for one of the most successful families in hockey. Each son was drafted into the NHL before spawning a professional career.
This unique accomplishment only tightened the brothers’ bond, but their closeness developed much earlier — a camaraderie from childhood that Staal now recognizes among his own sons that has made his career even more meaningful.
“It definitely adds a little bit more to it,” Staal said.
Growing up, home for the Staals was next to a family-owned sod farm about a 15-minute drive outside Thunder Bay in Slate River Valley.
Since friends’ houses weren’t accessible via bicycle, the four brothers hung out frequently.
On school days, they ate breakfast, watched cartoons and then got organized before the headlights of the bus flashed in the distance.
In the summer, they explored outside and helped on the farm. They laid sod at golf courses and mowed, and the boys were compensated for their work; Staal earned enough to purchase a go-kart when he was about 10 years old and then a dirt bike around three years later.
The family also took trips, heading for the border to swim for the weekend at the Day’s Inn in Duluth.
“If we were lucky, we would get one of those poolside rooms,” Staal said. “They were more expensive, but they’d do it once in a while.”
And, of course, the boys played hockey — on the outdoor rink in winter and inside the house, too. Staal, the protective older brother, always paired up with the youngest, Jared, while middle boys Marc and Jordan were teammates.
“Just being at the house,” he said, “coming up with our own games, coming up with our own ideas for fun, I think that was always the best.”
Leading the way
Staal joined his first team when he was 4 years old.
His dad, Henry, was going to wait to sign Staal up when he was 5, but Henry’s brother’s squad was short a player. Staal hadn’t skated much before, but he was named the Most Improved Player after he turned 5.
By 7 years old, he was one of the best players in the area, Henry said.
He debuted with defensive instincts, Henry believes, because Staal wanted to take care of his own end to try to win. Staal’s been told he once stood on the blue line the whole game; he was directed to stay there for puck drop but interpreted the instruction as where he was supposed to play.
In time, he began to search for breakaways and take offensive chances, honing a nose for the net that still headlines his skill set through 1,000-plus NHL games.
The 33-year-old reached the 20-goal plateau for the 11th time in his career in the Wild’s final game before the All-Star break Thursday against the Penguins; not only does he lead the team in goals, but Staal also paces it in points (43) while skating as the intense competitor leading by example like he has since he was young.
“He was kind of quiet, I suppose, in some respects,” Henry said. “But he was always kind of the kid that was kind of looked up to.”
Including by his siblings.
Staal was the first to get drafted, play in the NHL, score a goal, make an All-Star team and, in 2006, hoist a Stanley Cup.
Marc, 31, is in his 11th season with the Rangers, while 29-year-old Jordan is in Carolina after spending the first half of his 12-season career in Pittsburgh, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2009. Jared, who’s 27 and skated in two games with the Hurricanes in 2013, most recently played overseas last season after time in the ECHL and American Hockey League.
And with previous stints in New York and Carolina, Eric Staal has been able to be teammates in the NHL with Marc and Jordan.
“They looked up to him, how hard he worked and what he wanted to accomplish,” Henry said. “He was very focused, and I think the guys realized that’s what you need to be successful. … It kind of rubbed off on the younger guys.”
Family of five
A year after Staal captured a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes, who selected him second overall in 2003, he married Tanya.
They didn’t learn ahead of time that they were expecting boys, but when Tanya was set to deliver No. 3, the couple figured it was a forgone conclusion.
Tanya’s personality is most similar to Levi’s, with both being the middle child, while Parker is just like his dad — “a little more serious but very kind of determined,” Tanya said.
All, though, love hockey.
Parker and Levi play locally in Edina. Even Finley has gotten on the ice a few times — stoking the potential for another generation of Staal boys to make it to the NHL.
“[Levi] just thinks you sign up when you get a little older, and you just play,” said Staal, who signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Wild as a free agent in 2016. “That’s how it works. We’ll see how that plays out, but whatever they want to do, as long as they’re enjoying it, that’s the main thing.”
As Levi watches over a puck that has landed in the hot tub, Parker sticks his hand in the pool.
“Come on, boys,” Tanya calls out.
Parker skips to catch up with Staal, and then the entire group disappears into the hotel. Eventually, the day’s itinerary will guide them back to hockey and the purpose of the weekend getaway to Florida.
And what has enriched that journey and the one Staal embarks on every day as a pro is the family experiencing it with him.
“He’s always striving to be the best he can,” Tanya said, “but now having the boys to share it with, the boys just being there to support him, they’re really getting into it now. So even if they’re not staying up late to watch the game, the next morning they’re checking the stats right away and then talking hockey with Eric. It’s really neat for them to be able to share that together now.”