DAVOS, Switzerland – Sometimes, Eric Staal says, it’s funny how things work out.
Without an NHL contract for the first time since 2003, the year he was drafted second overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, the veteran forward was working out on his own, looking for a route back to the big leagues.
When COVID-19 and the arrival of the Omicron variant shut down the NHL’s plan to send players to the Olympic Games in Beijing, it opened another door for Staal.
He crashed through it, with the approval of his wife and three sons, and on Tuesday the 37-year-old was named to the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team, the elder statesman on a rag-tag squad of former NHL journeymen, European-based pros and up-and-comers, like No. 1 pick Owen Power, looking to gain valuable international experience ahead of schedule.
Widely expected to be named Canada’s captain, Staal, who won Olympic gold for Canada in 2010, said he plans to be himself, on and off the ice, a philosophy he’s followed throughout his hockey career.
“I come to practice, come to play every single moment I’m out there. I’m going to try to do as much as I can to help our team win and when there’s a time where something maybe needs to be said in the dressing room, I’m not going to be shy about saying something,” Staal said, hours after arriving in Switzerland, where Team Canada will gather and bubble together before heading to Beijing for the start of competition next month.
“That’s kind of how I’ve been my whole career and that’s not going to change. In a short tournament like this, it’s about coming together as a group and as a team and everyone buying into the end result and enjoying the experience and the road there. It’s going to be fun.”
Staal proved he could still play during a brief, four-game audition with the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, putting up five points.
“It was great. I was glad I had that chance to do it. Obviously skating on your own and preparing is one thing, but getting in game action is something different,” said Staal, who has put up 1,034 points in 1,293 NHL appearances, winning a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina and helping Montreal to last year’s Stanley Cup final.
Team Canada GM Shane Doan, a veteran of 1,540 NHL games himself, said Staal checked all the right boxes as the team was being selected – and made the most of his AHL tryout, which didn’t hurt his cause.
Doan said they asked him to play in a few games before the team was announced, adding Staal was happy to do it.
“He’s been an icon for the country and what he’s done in the NHL, but he also gives us that presence that I think is so valuable to have. When you think of Team Canada, you think of a guy like Eric Staal,” said Doan, later comparing his leadership ability with what he saw from Mario Lemieux at the 2004 World Cup.
“I think that gives credibility to the group and I think he’s somebody we’re going to count on for his leadership and lots of parts of his game.”
Team Canada Claude Julien says every team needs a guy like Staal to lead the way.
“I think he’s got the right attitude that he’s going to do that for us and help this team gel together. As coaches, you do the best you can with your coaching staff to bring that together, but there’s got to be some of that happening inside your dressing room. That’s where guys like (Eric) can be extremely helpful,” Julien said.
Team Canada opens the Olympic tournament on Feb. 10 against Germany. They’ll spend the next eight days in Davos, Switzerland.