Back in action

Thunder Bay’s Eric Staal last played in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2020-21 season. On Friday, Staal enjoyed a successful return to the American Hockey League.

The fire to compete still burns for Eric Staal.

On Thursday, the Thunder Bay native landed a professional tryout with the AHL’s Iowa Wild in hopes of shaking off some rust to play for Team Canada at the Beijing Winter Olympics next month.

“The chance to represent Canada in the Olympic Games is something you can never look away from,” Staal told reporters during an online press conference on Friday. “It’s pretty special and it would be an honour if I get that chance. I’ve been skating on my own for a while now, waiting to see what was out there, if there was an opportunity for me to play. I still have an itch and desire to compete and battle and play.

“This was kind of a stepping stone to see where I’m at, where my body’s at, how I feel,” he added. “Kind of go from there. If it goes well over the next little bit and Canada sees it fit for me to help them I will be excited to go over there and represent Canada.”

Staal’s AHL “re-debut” on Friday was a successful one. He scored a goal and assisted on the shorthanded winner by Nick Swaney as the Wild defeated the Chicago Wolves 4-3. It was a hockey lifetime ago that Staal was a fresh-faced rookie playing a full season with the Carolina Hurricanes as a No. 2 overall draft pick in 2003. In his second season, the 2004-05 lockout season, Staal honed his craft with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL, averaging exactly a point a game (77) abd setting the stage for his finest campaign in the NHL.

The Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 with Staal leading the charge with 45 goals and 55 assists, with nine snipes and 19 helpers in the playoffs. In 2010 he won Olympic gold with Canada in Vancouver.

But 1,293 NHL games and 1,034 points later, another visit to the Stanley Cup final with Montreal just last year under his belt, Staal, 37, is now a grizzled veteran looking to honour his country and land another shot in the NHL.

One difference compared to the bulk of career? The down time with no obligations to an NHL team in the first half of the season.

“Definitely different, but still really busy,” Staal said of his half-year absence from the NHL. “I have three boys (Parker, Finley and Levi), they all play, so it seems like I’m at a rink every night. I did an outdoor rink so that kept me busy during the day as well. Time goes.”

If that sounds a bit like Staal’s own childhood, with dad Henry building a backyard rink so his four sons could play, you’d be bang on.

“I’ve stayed on the ice personally and skating as well, kept the mind fresh, the legs engaged. . . . I definitely have moments of wanting to be out there with a group and a team, (still) feeling like I can,” he said.

Staal reached out to Team Canada and they responded. There’s been “an open line” ever since. Although there’s no guarantees, Staal would be a logical choice to not only make the team but captain it as well. The NHL pulled participation of its players from the Games due to safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s the Olympic Games, kind of unmatched to anything else. I still remember those feelings vividly from ‘06 and 2010,” said Staal, who notched 42 goals with Minnesota in the 2017-18 campaign. “If I can get that chance again I know it’ll be special. And it’s important. Hopefully the next little while goes well and maybe I’ll get that chance.”

As for a last hurrah in the NHL, a good showing at Beijing might accelerate that process.

“I’ve had conversations over the last few weeks, months, couple of different teams,” Staal said. “Hasn’t worked out into an opportunity yet. That’s why I continue to skate, stay in shape. If that call comes I’ll be ready to go. This is just another step in that type of direction where I get to out there, compete, play in some game situations.

“Look forward to battling. It’s the best,” Staal said before Friday’s game.

“To play a game and compete. I’ve done it my whole life. I still have that edge and desire to do it now. It’ll be fun. I look forward to the Games. Whatever happens after that, we’ll see how it plays out. I’m good either way.”