MONTREAL — Eric Staal says he got goosebumps as he drove toward the Canadian border to start the next chapter of his NHL career.
With the foundering Buffalo Sabres safely in his rear-view mirror, Staal says he's looking forward to starting fresh with the storied Montreal Canadiens once his week-long quarantine is up.
"Hey, I'm at the second half of my career, and I get an opportunity to play for the Habs," Staal said Sunday in a video conference with reporters. "You gotta love it."
Staal admits he wasn't loving it in Buffalo before the Canadiens plucked him from the disastrous situation in the Queen City on Friday by acquiring him from the Sabres for a couple of draft picks.
The Sabres had traded for Staal from Minnesota in September after the six-time all star's solid 2019-20 season with the Wild that saw him put up 47 points in 66 games. Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams was a teammate of Staal's during his heyday with Carolina, and Staal had also played with Buffalo forward Jeff Skinner on the Hurricanes.
But a fit in Buffalo didn't materialize for Staal. The Sabres were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier in the season, missing two weeks of action. That was followed by injuries to key players and a losing streak that increased to 17 games after a defeat to the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
All this while his family remained in Minnesota.
"There were so many hurdles, there were so many things that just didn't line up the way that we had in mind or had envisioned," Staal said. "The reality is we started OK, we had an up-and-down first two weeks or so, then we got hit with COVID, and it went through our room like wildfire and it wasn't great. And two weeks of guys battling that — and a couple of guys battling it pretty hard — it was difficult.
"After that, we never found any footing. Then injuries started to mount and in that division, where you're playing teams that don't beat themselves, it's difficult. And we just didn't have enough in the locker room to be able to counteract that and manage that properly."
As much as the 36-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ont., is looking forward to a needed change of scenery, it might not have happened had the federal government not approved cutting the mandatory two-week quarantine for those entering Canada in half for U.S.-based NHL players acquired by Canadian teams at the trade deadline.
The seven Canadian teams were originally on Staal's 10-team no-trade list, but he waived the clause when the policy change was made.
The change became official on Friday.
"That was definitely a factor," Staal said. "I just felt like 14 days of waiting is a long time, especially if your going to get traded in the middle of a season. To sit there and wait 14 days, and then come back out and then try to get in the lineup, that's too long.
"A week is doable. I think for me, at the age I am, it's a chance to recover the body and use this as an advantage, and now I'm excited to be able to join this group."
Staal joins a Canadiens team he has had success against in the past, particularly in the first round of the 2005-06 playoffs while with Carolina. The Habs were up 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal, but Staal scored the overtime winner in Game 3 and the Hurricanes won the series in six games en route to winning their only Stanley Cup.
"It feels a little bit surreal. I've played in this building many times, had some really fun games and competitive games," Staal said.
"It's amazing how fast those years go by," he added. "It doesn't feel that long ago that I was in here the first round of the playoffs that year and potted in the OT winner to kind of get the ball rolling for our group."
Staal said he likes the pace at which the Canadiens play, and their mix of youthful energy and veteran experience. He said he's ready to take any role with the Habs, but made it known he plans to get on the ice as much as possible.
"I'm a competitor," he said. "I want to play 25 minutes every game."
Montreal (14-8-9, fourth in North Division) is scheduled to return to action Tuesday when it hosts the Edmonton Oilers. It will be the Canadiens' first game since having four games postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2021.
The Canadian Press