Twelve years after winning gold in Vancouver, Eric Staal is a little older and a little more seasoned…and thrilled to be leading Canadian troops in Beijing
Eric Staal had planned to play hockey this year, but certainly not in China.
He hoped that the last season, where he helped the Montreal Canadiens sneak into the Stanley Cup Final against all odds, wouldn’t be his. last.
The 37-year-old free agent was at home in Minnesota waiting for an NHL team to dial his number, but when the season started and he had few concrete offers on the table, he feared having to hang up his skates after 18 seasons and 1,293 games in the NHL.
However, the story took an unexpected turn when, just before Christmas, the NHL and the NHLPA announced that they would not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
But since it was out of the question for Canada not to send a men’s team to Beijing, general manager Shane Doan turned to players without an NHL contract.
Doan quickly contacted the striker to see if he was interested in representing his country for a seventh time and competing in his second Olympics. Both say the call was brief but fruitful.
“It wasn’t my plan A, but sometimes, that’s life, philosopher Staal. We wait for a door to open, and then we go for it! That’s how it is for me these days. When Shane offered me this chance, I jumped at it. »
Suddenly, Staal – who, while waiting for the phone to ring, drove his kids to practices and hockey games and skated three times a week to stay in shape – had just joined Team Canada to play on the other side of the planet, 14 hours jet-lagged from his family.
“The last month has not been easy, but I’m really looking forward to trying to win gold with the guys. I will try to make the most of this opportunity. »
For Doan, who was Staal’s teammate for 13 NHL seasons and twice at the IIHF World Championship, in 2007 and 2008, the only real question was whether the 6’4″ center could still reach a physical form worthy of the elite.
Staal played four games with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League, scoring two goals and three assists with the Minnesota farm. By his own admission, it was a major physical test before committing to play for Canada.
Doan believes Staal is a major asset to the Maple Leaf in Beijing.
“It brings credibility,” he explains. He is a player who finds a way to win. »
Indeed, the native of Thunder Bay is a regular for victory. Having won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, a gold medal at the 2007 IIHF World Championship and another at the 2010 Winter Olympics, he is part of the very select Triple Gold Club, which has only 29 members (including 11 Canadians.)
It is this last triumph, in Vancouver 12 years ago, that he cherishes the most.
Not only was it on Canadian soil, but it was also his first Olympic experience. He has precious memories of the spirit of the Games, of having been able to attend competitions in other sports and of having met other athletes.
“The memories of 2010 are still very fresh in my mind,” he said. We don’t realize how time flies. »
Staal vividly remembers starting the tournament alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and finishing it on the same line as Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla, in a match where Canada won gold at the expense of United States.
Today, he has seen others and he understands that he will not play the same role within the national team – especially since he will wear the C.
This position suits him well, and he is honored by this responsibility.
“I don’t intend to let this chance pass,” he said. I will do everything I can to win. There might be times when my experience will come in handy; I will do my best to be myself and support the team. »
Doan believes the former Hurricanes captain for seven seasons was the perfect fit to lead Team Canada because of his natural charisma, a valuable tool on the ice and in the locker room.
“He’s a strong center who moves well on the ice, gets up to the net and finishes plays, both offensively and defensively. It was horrible playing against him, Doan recalls.
And in the locker room, he’s a natural leader. I had to make tough decisions for the Olympiques, but naming him captain was definitely not one of them. »
For Staal, this second Olympic experience is not just another chance to win gold; it is also an enriching experience on a cultural and personal level.
“It’s really very pleasant, and it’s sure that it’s unique, he says. We are pampered, it’s really well organized. And without the Olympics, I probably would never have come here. »
As usual, expectations are high for the Canadian contingent. Doan and Staal understand that, and they believe Team Canada has what it takes to win the gold.
“Around the world, even in our locker room, there are a lot of expectations of Team Canada,” Doan said. No matter where or against whom Team Canada is playing, a win is always expected. »
Staal believes that his experience should be useful in understanding the magnitude of the task.
“We can’t just show up. Our team is well balanced, but the competition is going to be fierce. We can’t wait to show what we are capable of. »
And if Canada won all the honours, would that be a good conclusion for his career?
He says he doesn’t think about that.
“I focus on our team and our tournament, he insists. And on the chance to realize the dream of the gold medal. If the NHL knocks on my door afterwards, I’d be very happy, but if not… We’ll see after the Olympics. »