After helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup final last summer, Eric Staal was disappointed not to elicit much interest on the free-agent market.
Rather than retire, the 37-year-old decided to continue to skate and stay in shape in case a COVID-ravaged NHL team gave him a holler.
That never happened. Instead, Team Canada called and on Tuesday Staal was the most prominent player among 25 named to the men’s team that will represent the country at the Winter Olympics next month in Beijing.
“The goal was for me [to] get back in the NHL at some point, but this opportunity was too good to pass up,” Staal said during a video call with journalists from Davos, Switzerland, where the Canadians will hold a one-week training camp. “It is just funny how things work out. Sometimes an opportunity like this falls in your lap.”
A gold-medal winner when he played on a line beside Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla in 2010 in Vancouver, Staal would not have had this chance if the NHL had not pulled its players out of the Beijing Olympics a month ago because of complications caused by the novel coronavirus.
To get ready, Staal played four games with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League before he left for Switzerland.
“Skating on your own and getting game action is totally different,” Staal said. “I am glad I got the chance.”
Other former NHL players selected to Team Canada include veteran centre David Desharnais, left wing Daniel Winnik, right wing Adam Cracknell and defencemen Jason Demers and Mark Barberio.
The roster mostly consists mostly of a mixture of players with experience in the AHL and Europe, a few from the NCAA and one – Hamilton’s Mason McTavish – from the OHL.
Josh Ho-Sang of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies was also chosen. After a few star-crossed years with the New York Islanders, Ho-Sang is trying to restart his career.
“I saw Josh skate today and you can see there is undeniable talent there,” said Claude Julien, Team Canada’s head coach. “There is no doubt he will blend in well here.”
Julien, who most recently coached the Canadiens, had to scramble to put the squad together. Previous NHL players were known commodities, but a lot of scouting had to be done by video.
“The process was different than what we normally get to do, but we have a pretty good grasp of what the players can bring,” Julien said. “We looked at a lot of different things we wanted, and I was surprisingly happy with what I saw today.”
Julien won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the Boston Bruins in 2011 and a gold medal as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“We are going for the gold,” Julien said. “I’d love to bring it back to our country.”
Staal, who played 17 years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, is the oldest team member. The youngest is McTavish, who turns 19 next week.
“The Olympic Games are just a special time,” Staal said. He was named to Team Canada’s taxi squad for the 2006 games but did not play. “It is unique to have so many countries gathered for sports. It is like nothing else.
“The spirit of the Games is special and we are excited for this chance.”
Team Canada will travel to Beijing once it concludes its short training camp and will play its first game on Feb. 9.
For some of the younger players, this whole experience has been dizzying.
Devon Levi, who will battle to be the starting goaltender with Edward Pasquale and Matt Tomkins, is in the middle of his first season at Northeastern University in Boston.
The 20-year-old from Montreal had never been outside of North America until he arrived in Switzerland on Monday.
“This whole experience is crazy,” Levi said. “It has definitely been a strange little bit.”
Levi, who went 6-1 with a .964 save percentage for Team Canada at the 2020 world junior championship, said he never imagined he would play in the Olympics.
After the NHL announced its players would not participate, someone posted a meme on Instagram with Levi wearing a Team Canada jersey.
“I was stunned,” he said. “I had no clue I would be considered for this team. After I saw it, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Levi has started all 24 games for Northeastern, which is currently ranked No. 15 among Division I men’s hockey teams in the NCAA. He is 16-7-1 to this point with nine shutouts and a .948 save percentage.
“I’m super grateful to be here,” Levi said. “You dream about it as a kid, but I never thought it would happen and certainly not this year.”
As Staal said, it is funny how things turn out.
“We are all soon-to-be Olympians and we didn’t know that 30 days ago,” Levi said. “It’s crazy.”