THUNDER BAY – Eric Staal knows there are no guarantees in life.
But like Wayne Gretzky once famously said, you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.
The 37-year-old Thunder Bay born forward is taking his shot.
Staal has joined the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, the farm team of one of his former NHL clubs, the Minnesota Wild, hoping to get back into game shape and show Hockey Canada officials he’s still got what it takes to represent Canada at the Olympic Games.
A member of the Canada’s taxi squad at the 2006 Games, and a full-fledged member four years later, Staal has not played a meaningful game since the Montreal Canadiens fell last July to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final, a season that saw him start in Buffalo, his point total plummet and then rebound slightly with a mid-season trade to Montreal.
He’ll make his Iowa Wild debut on Friday night, a little rustier than his last outing, returning to the AHL for the first time in nearly 17 years, with one main goal on his mind.
“The chance to represent Canada at the Olympic Games is something you can never look away from. It’s pretty special and would be an honour if I get that chance,” said Staal, who put up 441 goals and 1,034 points in 1,293 NHL games, a 17-year career that included a 2006 Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that drafted him second overall in 2003.
“I’ve been skating on my own now for a good while now, waiting to see what was out there, if there was opportunity out there to play. I still have an itch and a desire to compete and battle and play. This was kind of a stepping stone to see where I’m at, where my body is at, how I feel and kind of go from there.”
The veteran forward hasn’t been promised a spot on Team Canada, a squad likely to be made up of promising junior players like No. 1 pick Owen Power and Mason McTavish, and former NHLers Michael Del Zotto and Devan Dubnyk, a former teammate of Staal’s in Minnesota, all of whom are rumoured to be on Hockey Canada’s long list of prospective Olympians.
As a member of the triple gold club – a Stanley Cup, a world hockey championship and an Olympic gold medal – Staal said the spirit of competition at the Olympic Games is second to none.
“I still remember those feelings vividly in ’06 and 2010, so if I can get that chance again I know it will be special, and it’s important. Hopefully this next little while goes well and maybe I’ll get that chance,” said Staal, the oldest of four hockey-playing brothers who has spent much of his downtime at the rink with his three hockey-playing sons.
He recognizes it’s not the same world from a dozen years ago, when he was in the midst of his lone 100-point season, en route to his one and only Stanley Cup win.
That said, if chosen to go to Beijing, he won’t hesitate to go, despite the strict COVID-19 regulation in place in China, where a tight Olympic bubble has been put in place and the threat of a lengthy quarantine looms for those who might contract the virus at the Games.
“I’m not too worried, to be completely honest. There’s a lot of restrictions everywhere with a lot of different thoughts and feelings with everything to do with COVID and vaccines. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to play at the Olympic Games and that’s as far as I’m looking at it.”
Canada is expected to name its men’s hockey team next week, and opens Olympic play on Feb. 10 against Germany.