BEIJING — Eric Staal didn’t march in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics.
Canada’s star-studded team of NHLers skipped the pomp and circumstance 12 years ago, preferring to focus on final preparations ahead of that pressure-packed tournament on home soil.
Staal probably thought the chance to partake in a procession of red-clad, selfie-taking athletes trailing the fluttering Maple Leaf had long passed him by.
When the NHL backed out of the Beijing Games, however, the door once again swung open.
And Staal wasn’t going to miss out on what’s surely his final chance.
“It was a thrill,” Canada’s 37-year-old captain said of the men’s hockey team walking into Beijing’s National Stadium on Friday with about 75 other athletes from the country’s contingent. “You knew the feeling in Vancouver when we were there — just the spirit and the feeling of the Games and the other athletes. But when you actually participate in the opening ceremony, you really get that sense of it being such a universal thing.
“It was really, really cool.”
One of the youngest players on the team also soaked up the atmosphere.
“It was awesome,” said 20-year-old University of Michigan defenceman Owen Power, the top pick at the most recent NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres.
“Something that I’ll never forget.”
Less than 24 hours later, it was back to work.
Canada hit the ice for its first practice in China on Saturday after cancelling back-to-back sessions — one following a long travel day from training camp in Switzerland and another so the team could be part of that memorable march.
“It’s easy to look ahead, and we’re excited to play the games,” said head coach Jeremy Colliton, thrust into the top job when Claude Julien broke his ribs during a team-building exercise last week and was unable to travel.
“I thought it was really good as far as the focus on our preparation.”
Canada will play an exhibition game against the United States on Monday before opening its Group A schedule Thursday against Germany.
The team hasn’t played a game since coming together last month, but Colliton stacked the deck on a top line that saw Staal centring the skilful Josh Ho-Sang and Mason McTavish — a 19-year-old with a bruising style and wicked shot selected third overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2021.
“Really excited to get an opportunity to play with such elite goal-scorers,” said Ho-Sang, a 2014 first-round pick looking to resurrect his NHL career with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
“I’m hoping to just feed those guys’ bellies.”
Colliton tried to pump the brakes on the talented trio, but the possibility has to be tantalizing.
“You put things together, put the pieces where you think maybe this could work,” said the 37-year-old, who was fired by the Chicago Blackhawks in November. “Until we play a game it’s really hard to know. Every tournament like this, things evolve. There’s injuries, there’s good performances, poor performances.
“Adjust as we go.”
The NHL withdrew from the Olympics in December due to COVID-19 pressures that wreaked havoc on its schedule.
The news was devastating for the game’s best, but opened the door to players in lower leagues like Power and Ho-Sang, and at least one looking for another last NHL shot in Staal, to chase gold in Beijing.
“It’s pretty sad that they didn’t get the opportunity to go,” Ho-Sang said of the team that would have featured Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. “I feel really bad for the guys who are the top-20 Canadians in the world. Some of them may never get the opportunity to do this.
“Hopefully we can put on a good show and grow the game the way that those guys were meant to.”
There’s little doubt this group is going to soak up every moment as Canada looks to improve on the bronze it won four years ago when the NHL skipped the event in Pyeongchang.
“A dream come true,” said forward Daniel Winnik, who played parts of 11 NHL seasons before suiting up the last four in Switzerland. “Quite honestly, I didn’t think it was a dream that was possible.”
“It’s an honour,” added Ho-Sang, 26. “Really proud I was selected.”
The 36-year-old Winnik said getting to China weighed heavily on the group with all the COVID-19 testing and protocols. Two members of Canada’s roster — forward Daniel Carr and defenceman Brandon Gormley — have yet to arrive for those reasons, but a Hockey Canada official said both are expected to travel soon.
“That seems to be the most stressful part of the whole thing,” Winnik said. “Getting here and the pre-process of it and the worry of, ‘Maybe I test positive.'”
With those worries now melting away, the players can focus on the task at hand.
And for Staal, that’s looking to add another gold medal — this time without his fellow NHL stars of a generation ago — to the trophy case after helping Canada reach the pinnacle in 2010.
“We’re here to try and do that,” he said. “We look forward to it.”
Similar to how the entire team looked forward to the opening ceremony — an experience most never expected, and now won’t forget.
“You’re walking through (the stadium) and it’s surreal,” Winnik said. “I’m a Canadian Olympian. It’s pretty amazing. But our focus is to win.
“That’s what we’re here for.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2022.
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