Almost 17 years later, it still feels like yesterday that Henry and Linda Staal dropped their jittery 15-year-old off in Peterborough, Ontario, for his first year of junior hockey.

That’s quite a contrast to a few years later when a self-assured Eric Staal, already considered a cream-of-the-crop prospect in what would months later become arguably the best draft in NHL history, began his third season with the Petes.

“He drove, all by himself. I’ll never forget it. Just happier than heck,” Henry Staal said of his oldest of four boys climbing into a bronze Pontiac Firebird for a 16-hour commute from their sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “Seventeen years old, he had his own vehicle. Horn was honkin’, 4 or 5 in the morning, like, ‘I’m gone.’

“Didn’t need mum and dad anymore. But, that doesn’t seem like very long ago.”

Linda Staal, as she sat next to her husband of 33 years in the lobby of a Tampa hotel last week, smiled at the memory. “No, it doesn’t,” she said.

Their precious Eric, now 32, is set to become on Sunday in Winnipeg the first player from the 2003 draft to play his 1,000th game. The second overall pick will become the 311th player to reach the milestone.