TWO decades have passed since the Peterborough Petes made one of the shrewdest draft picks in the history of the Ontario Hockey League. During the first round of the 2000 OHL Priority Selection, the Petes used the 13th overall choice to tab Eric Staal from Thunder Bay.
Making the decision to call out Staal’s name that day was Jeff Twohey, the Petes general manager.
“It’s still a real good story,” offered Twohey over the weekend. “There was a lot to it, actually. Eric was under the radar. If I recall, I don’t think he was even rated by OHL Central Scouting until the end.”
Peterborough had seen him at the Big Nickel Tournament in Sudbury but never thought much about him.
“As the season wound down, myself and our head scout at the time, Norm Robert, had seen him and we kept looking at each other and going, ‘man this kid has really come on.’”
Staal’s stellar play eventually helped lead the Thunder Bay Kings to a gold medal at the All-Ontario bantam championship.
Heading into the draft, Twohey and Robert (who now birddogs for the Colorado Avalanche) still mulled over who their No. 1 choice was going to be.
“I remember clear as day the night before the draft. Norm and I were in the hotel and we were stressed,” reminisced Twohey. “We had to make a decision whether we were going to take Eric or not, but the more we kept looking at the draft, we kept saying he was going to be our guy.”
While not as highly touted as others, there was something about the kid from the Lakehead that continued to draw the attention of the Petes’ brass.
“On the face of it, it was a reach. He wasn’t rated that high, but he and Thunder Bay had just won the All-Ontario’s and Eric was a big part of that.”
Mulling over his decision, the well-respected Twohey — genuinely one of the nicest people you could ever meet in the hockey world — knew it was time for a verdict.
“We were going back and forth, the pros and cons of taking him. It was late and I said to Norm: ‘You know what? Screw it, we’re taking him. That’s our guy. We’re going to live it.’”
Making the selection is something deeply entrenched in Twohey’s memory bank.
“I still remember it clear as day, when I got up to announce the Peterborough Petes were pleased to select Eric Staal, there was a team right in front of the stage and I heard a scout utter ‘No way’ — basically laughing at us.”
The Petes GM knew his pick would be second guessed.
“He was literally 5-foot-11, 142 pounds and it was a surprise to a lot of people. We took a chance on him. We saw a smaller player, that played with passion, was very, very smart, very driven, very skilled. We thought that he had high-end potential to get better. But in no way did we expect him to be as good as he was,” said Twohey.
“We took a chance before anyone else did, but Eric did the rest.”
Just how big of a steal was Staal for the Petes? Well, out of all the players chosen in that draft, no one has played more NHL games than him at 1,240.
“You know, for me to sit here and say we knew Eric would turn out as well as he did, we didn’t know that,” Twohey chimed in.
In his three years with Peterborough, Staal improved his goal, assist and point totals each campaign before going on to be taken second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2003 NHL Draft.
Even before he suited up in his first game, Twohey kept seeing signs his team had someone special.
“We had fitness testing shortly after the draft and our trainer came up to me and says” ‘Did you know Eric just had some minor surgery on his knee?’ Eric didn’t say anything. He also had a big blister on his foot and ran his distances anyways.”
Still quite reserved and a long way from home, it took a pleasant memory to get him to open up.
“Eric at the time was very shy, very withdrawn, and I couldn’t get much out of him. The day after the fitness testing, I took Eric and his mother Linda out to breakfast before we got them to Toronto to fly back to Thunder Bay.
Twohey said the young player, and oldest of four boys playing hockey, was so reserved until Linda mentioned the backyard rink they had at home. That’s when Eric’s eyes lit up.
“He got so excited. You could see the passion. He said: ‘Mr. Twohey, it has boards and lights and dad has a water truck to flood the ice.’ I knew right then he was going to be a player.”
Despite the high selection, the then Petes GM told his young charge he had to earn his ice time.
“We told him ‘You’re going to start on the fourth line and it’s up to you where you go from there.’ By the end of the season he was our No. 1 centre.”
Still recalled fondly some 20 years later, Twohey basks in what Staal has provided in his lengthy career that resumes this week with the Minnesota Wild.
“So passionate. So committed. He came in with no hype, but had a natural passion and kept pushing to be better. He’s an inspiration. A person of character. A great story.”
Tom Annelin’s column appears weekly in The Chronicle-Journal. You can contact Tom at email@example.com.