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A tough season for Eric Staal looking up with Olympics on the horizon

TORONTO - When Eric Staal was invited to join Team Canada a few weeks ago, there might not have been anyone in hockey who was happier than Jim Rutherford.

The Carolina Hurricanes general manager has watched his star player cope with grief both off and on the ice in recent months, carrying what he termed a "pretty heavy load."

While it led to some early-season struggles for Staal, his GM is quick to point out that it didn't change his impressive resume.

"He's a guy that has experience in the big games and performs in the big games," Rutherford said this week. "He earned the right to be there."

If you were only to look at this season's stats, the choice might have seemed a little surprising. But Staal's year can't be measured by simply counting goals and assists.

The 25-year-old had been privately dealing with an illness in the family that came to light when his sister-in-law, Tamara Stephenson, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. Staal left the team for a couple days to attend the funeral in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Rutherford acknowledged that it's not the sort of thing Staal would talk much about.

"He's real quiet, real private," said Rutherford.

Members of the organization already had first-hand knowledge of that after watching Staal build an ironman streak which lasted over 300 games.

Over the years, he rarely complained of any aches or pains even though he most certainly experienced his fair share of them. That issue was highlighted when Staal suffered a minor groin injury at the Olympic orientation camp over the summer and continued to play with it through training camp and into the season.

It slowed him down early on.

"I probably played a little bit too long at the beginning of the year through some things I shouldn't have," said Staal. "Sometimes you have some small things that with time will get better.

"It seemed this year with the Olympic break the games kind of backed up on each other and we didn't really have that many days off. It just kept getting worse and worse."

To make matters even worse, he suffered an upper-body injury in early November and was forced to miss a stretch of games for the first time in his career. He hadn't sat out since being scratched once as a rookie in 2003-04.

"It was no fun," said Staal. "I haven't been in that situation in my career yet - 10 games in a row was difficult. And then trying to work my way back after that."

Fortunately, things seem to be getting better.

Staal had a five-point night just before getting named to the Olympic squad on Dec. 30 and has goals in his past two games. With the Games set to begin in just over a month, his game is rounding into form at the right time.

"I'm feeling a lot better as of late," said Staal.

Four years ago, he was part of the Canadian taxi squad at the Olympics. Staal travelled to Turin and practised with the team, but could only watch as it finished a disappointing seventh.

Needless to say, he's expecting the Vancouver experience to be much more memorable.

"Last time wasn't very much fun watching from the crowd and not be able to help them," said Staal. "This time, I'm looking forward to being counted on and hopefully delivering and playing well."

The anticipation isn't any higher after a season of struggles. Like many Canadian hockey players, he's been excited about the prospect of wearing the Maple Leaf in Vancouver for a long time.

"I think, no matter what our situation was or is this year, I would have been looking forward to the opportunity," said Staal. "It is the Olympic Games, with the best athletes in the world, and I am going to be a part of that.

"It is going to be fun."


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