Twelve years after winning Olympic gold on home ice, Eric Staal is little older and a little wiser, and embracing an unexpected opportunity to lead Team Canada on and off the ice in Beijing
Eric Staal was expecting to play hockey this season, but what he didn’t forecast was that it would be in China.
After finishing last season with the Montreal Canadiens as a key part of their impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final, the 37-year-old was planning on playing again this season.
As a free agent he was patiently waiting at home in Minnesota for another NHL contract to present itself. But as the season commenced with few tangible offers to weigh, Staal feared adding to his 1,293 NHL games and playing a 19th season might not materialize.
However, the slim prospect of returning to the ice in any fashion took an interesting turn prior to Christmas when the NHL and NHLPA announced they would not participate in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
Since Team Canada was still committed to sending a men’s team to Beijing, the recruitment process for general manager Shane Doan zeroed in on players not under NHL contract.
It didn’t take long for Doan to contact the veteran forward and inquire about his interest in an opportunity to represent his country internationally for a seventh time, including a second appearance at the Olympics. Both admit the phone conversation was brief and fruitful.
“It wasn’t the initial plan,” says Staal. “But that’s sometimes how life goes. You wait for certain doors to open and you run through them. That’s how it’s been for me that last little bit.
“And once (Shane) threw that at me, I jumped on the opportunity.”
In short order, Staal went from waiting for the phone to ring, shuttling kids to hockey practices and games and skating three times a week to stay in shape, to playing for Team Canada on the other side of the world and 14 time zones away from his family.
“It’s been a whirlwind month, but I’m super pumped to try and win a gold medal with this group of guys and for our country,” he says. “I’m going to try and take full advantage of it.”
According to Doan – who played against Staal for 13 seasons in the NHL and with him on two Team Canada entries at the IIHF World Championship in 2007 and 2008 – the only concern was whether the six-foot-four centre could push his body to an elite level again.
Staal cleared that hurdle easily, playing four games in the American Hockey League with the Iowa Wild in mid-January. He recorded two goals and five points in four games with Minnesota’s top affiliate and admits test-driving his body in that environment was an important step in committing to play for Canada.
According to Doan, the addition of Staal to the roster immediately boosted Canada’s chances of finding success in Beijing.
“He’s a guy that provides credibility,” he says. “And he’s a player that just finds a way to win.”
Over his storied career winning has been a frequent experience for the Thunder Bay, Ont., product. He’s won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, a gold medal at the 2007 IIHF World Championship and gold again at the 2010 Winter Olympics, all of which combine to make him one of just 29 members of the exclusive Triple Gold Club, and one of just 11 Canadians.
It was the last of those triumphant experiences 12 years ago in Vancouver that he cherishes deeply.
For starters, it came on Canadian ice, but it also allowed him to share in the experience of being an Olympian for the first time. Areas like understanding the “spirit of the Games,” watching other sports and meeting other athletes were just a few fond personal takeaways.
“Those memories from 2010 are still fresh in my mind,” he says. “You don’t realize how quickly time goes by.”
Staal remembers vividly starting the tournament with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and finishing the gold medal game win over the United States on a line that included Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla.
Now a little older and certainly more experienced, Staal understands his role with Team Canada this time around will be different, especially since he’ll wear the ‘C’ as captain.
It’s a position he’s comfortable in accepting and a responsibility he’s honoured to carry.
“It’s about grabbing ahold of this chance,” he says. “I will be doing what I can do to help out and for us to find success.
“There could be moments where I can hopefully shine through with some of (my experience). I’ll do my best to be myself and be that guy for the group.”
As the Hurricanes captain for seven seasons, Doan says it was a natural fit for Staal to assume the distinction of being Team Canada’s ultimate leader, as he emits a natural aura both on and off the ice that is invaluable.
“He’s a big centre that gets around the ice well, goes to the net, finishes and plays both ends of the ice. Playing against him was a pain,” says Doan.
“And then to see his presence in the room and with the guys and he’s the leader of the group. And rightfully so. There were a few decisions that might have been hard but [making Staal captain] wasn’t one of them.”
Now back at the Olympics for a second time, Staal acknowledges this experience of playing in Beijing is not only another chance to win gold, but also a culturally enlightening time of his life.
“It’s been pretty cool and definitely unique,” he says. “It’s been a treat to be here and an excellent setup. It’s a place I likely would have never travelled to without this experience.”
As with every Canadian hockey contingent on the international stage, there is an expectation to win. This tournament is no different. Doan and Staal understand that outlook and believe this version of Team Canada has the makeup to bring another Olympic gold back home.
“When you’re Team Canada, there’s a level of expectation in the dressing room and around the world,” says Doan. “When you play for (Canada), I don’t care what we’re doing, where we’re doing it, we expect to win.”
Staal maintains experience should aid in understanding the commitment it will take to be successful.
“It’s not going to be show up and put our sticks on the ice and get it done. I like the balance we have within our team. It’s going to be extremely competitive. We’re excited for our chance to perform.”
Should Canada prevail in this showcase and deliver another package of gold hardware, could it be a fitting way for Staal to end his career?
He says he’s not thinking that way.
“My focus is this group and this opportunity,” he says. “And a chance to try and accomplish the dream of winning a gold medal. If there’s another opportunity in the NHL after, I would be excited for that chance but if not … We’ll see what happens after this tournament.”