"When you think of Team Canada, you think of Eric Staal."
Those are big words from Captain Canada himself, Canadian GM Shane Doan. Staal was one of the marquee additions to Canada's Olympic team that will fight for gold in Beijing, once again sporting a lineup devoid of NHL talent.
With Staal remaining unsigned, he quickly became one of the most notable names when the NHL officially pulled out of the Olympics in December. Staal is no stranger to the Olympics, joining the team as the lone player to participate during the NHL era after winning gold in 2010.
But that was 12 years ago, and Staal is in the twilight of his career. Staal's last venture in the NHL saw him play for the Stanley Cup in Montreal's bottom-six last year, but the club elected to let him go after just eight points between 42 regular season and playoff games. With nowhere to go, Staal turned his focus towards helping out his three young children, acting mainly as a personal driver to and from minor hockey games.
Throughout this time, Staal kept practicing locally in Minnesota to stay in game shape for the next opportunity. At 37 years old, Staal wasn't willing to walk away from the game that made him a Stanley Cup champion two years into his NHL career. As a sophomore, Staal had 100 points in 82 regular-season games and 28 points in the post-season to win the lone Cup of his career before becoming a perennial 70-plus point producer for the remainder of his career.
But that's old news. Since representing the Wild in the NHL all-star game in 2020, he mainly served as a depth player on multiple teams. His days of being a full-time NHLer are likely over, but he can still play solid hockey, even if his offense isn't what it used to be.
Hockey Canada asked Staal to get into some AHL action prior to joining Canada for training camp in Davos, Switzerland, and he seized the opportunity. In four games with the Iowa Wild, Staal had two goals and five points while acting as a mentor for Minnesota's young guns.
"I was glad I had that chance to do it," Staal said. "Obviously skating on your own and preparing is one fun thing, but getting game action is something different.
"(I'm) feeling good, my body's rested. By Game 4 there, I felt up to speed and good as far as the physicality and the pace of it."
Staal is the elder statesman of the team, with his NHL debut coming just 256 days after fellow Canadian Olympian Mason McTavish was born. Jack McBain (2000), Devon Levi (2001) and Owen Power (2002) were still learning the basics like learning to speak, walk and do their business via appropriate avenues.
With 1,293 NHL games played, various international events and a Stanley Cup to his credit, his experience is something Canada's staff is excited about.
"The way he gets around the ice, his feet, the way he moves, Staal is a proven icon for the country and what he's done in the NHL," said Canadian GM Shane Doan, who played with Staal at the 2007 and 2008 World Championships. "He also gives us a presence that I think is so valuable to have... I think that gives credibility to the group and we're going to count on him for leadership and lots of parts of his game."
But Staal doesn't want to go to Beijing just to have a fun time or be the old man among kids. Staal wants to play good hockey, because the opportunities for that are limited at his age.
"This is just another chapter in my career, and my hockey book that I hope ends in the right results," Staal said. "Sometimes you can control things, sometimes you can't. For me, it was kind of out of my control with how things went as far as free agency. I kept skating, staying in shape and sometimes, an opportunity like this falls into your lap and you need to cherish and relish that moment."
Staal isn't ruling out an NHL return, and a strong effort in China could help boost his profile for a team looking for a bit of extra depth heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Staal hasn't represented Canada internationally since the 2013 World Championship, but this opportunity was too goo for him to pass on.
“It’s funny how things work, and how things work out.”