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Twelve years after winning Olympic hockey gold in Vancouver, forward Eric Staal returns to lead a group of Canadian men into the Beijing tournament that begins Feb. 9.
With a strong performance, the 37-year-old might find a way back to the NHL, which pulled its players from the Olympics in December because of the disruption in the regular-season schedule as a result of rising COVID-19 cases throughout the league.
Staal, who had a goal and six points in seven games in the 2010 Olympic tourney, is a likely candidate to serve as captain for Team Canada, which announced its 25-player roster on Tuesday.
"I have so many fond memories of competing at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and winning a gold medal on home ice," Staal said in a news release. "The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport, and I know our entire team is grateful for the opportunity."
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The free agent has been working himself into game shape on a professional tryout with the American Hockey League's Iowa Wild after helping Montreal to the Stanley Cup final last summer in his 17th NHL campaign. Staal played almost 1,400 games in the NHL and won the 2006 Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Other former NHL players include forwards David Desharnais (age 35), Daniel Winnik (36), Adam Cracknell (36), Josh Ho-Sang, Eric O'Dell, Ben Street and defencemen Jason Demers (33), Mark Barberio (31) and Tyler Wotherspoon.
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Fans got a glimpse of first-time Olympians and NHL prospects Mason McTavish and Owen Power at the world junior championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., before it was cancelled in December after four days because of a continued forfeiture of games as a result of COVID-19.
McTavish, who turns 19 on Jan. 30, is the youngest on the Olympic roster and lone Canadian Hockey League player. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft appeared in nine games with the Anaheim Ducks earlier this season.
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Power, a six-foot-six-inch defenceman taken No. 1 overall last year by the Buffalo Sabres, is in his second season at the University of Michigan. One of four players on the Olympic team under the age of 23, the 19-year-old became the first Canadian blue-liner to score a hat trick with three goals in the team's world junior opener against the Czech Republic.
"This seems like a great group," said Staal, who was also on the Canada's taxi squad in 2006. "Love the look and the balance we have."
Levi starring in NCAA
In goal, Canada chose Devon Levi of Quebec, who boasts a 1.55 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in 24 games this season with Boston's Northeastern University in the NCAA.
The 20-year-old was a seventh-round selection by the Florida Panthers in 2020 and emerged as the starter for Canada at the 2021 world juniors, winning tournament MVP honours in a silver-medal performance.
"We've got a mix of some young guys, we've got some guys in their mid-20s and we've got some older guys," Canada general manager Shane Doan said on a video call. "That youthful enthusiasm that shows up in the young guys early on in a season, in any season you play in, is always fascinating to watch and without a doubt it's noticeable.
"But you also notice those older veteran guys in the playoffs: those guys that have that energy in the playoffs when the games are on the line that have that little extra boost because they've been part of the game for a long time."
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Toronto's Edward Pasquale and Edmonton's Matt Tomkins are the other netminders. Pasquale played eight seasons in the AHL and has spent the past two-plus seasons in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Tomkins, who has AHL and ECHL experience, is in his first season with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League.
Canada did not skew as young as the United States, which has 11 players under 23. Russia, Finland and other medal contenders went with mostly veteran rosters and stayed away from players in their early 20s.
"We always talk about playing the Canadian way," head coach Claude Julien said on a video conference call with reporters. "We're a proud country of the way we play the game.
"We're going to be an aggressive team."
We are going there to win a gold medal. That is our job. — Tom Renney
Since the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed national teams to bring six-member taxi squads to Beijing, Canada named goaltender Justin Pogge, defencemen Morgan Ellis and John Gilmour and forwards Kent Johnson, Max Veronneau and Chris DiDomenico as alternates. Johnson, who wowed fans at the world juniors last month, was drafted fifth overall by Columbus in 2021.
Along with O'Dell, Maxim Noreau and Mat Robinson are back from the 2018 team that won an Olympic bronze medal without NHL players in Pyeongchang, South Korea, defeating the Czech Republic 6-4.
"We are going there to win a gold medal," Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said Tuesday in a recorded message. "That is our job."
Canada eyes 1st non-NHL gold medal since '52
In the 2018 gold medal game, Canadians grabbed an early 3-1 lead and survived a six-goal roller-coaster third period, with Andrew Ebbett and Chris Kelly leading the attack with two goals apiece.
Canada won gold with NHLers in 2002, 2010 and 2014, but hasn't topped the podium in an Olympic tournament that wasn't best-on-best since 1952.
The NHL went to five straight Games between 1998 and 2014, but declined to participate four years ago in a tournament that was won by the Russians.
Assisting Julien in Beijing will be Nolan Baumgartner, Jeremy Colliton and Tyler Dietrich.
Doan and Julien were set to lead Canada at the Spengler Cup, which was cancelled because of COVID-19, and were on standby as replacements in the event the NHL withdrew.
Following a training camp and exhibition game in Switzerland, the Canadians will travel to Beijing before playing one more warmup contest against the United States.
Canada opens tournament play Feb. 10 against Germany before taking on the U.S. (Feb. 12) and hosts China (Feb. 13) to close out round-robin action in Group A.
Canada's Olympic hockey roster
Goaltenders: Devon Levi, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., Edward Pasquale, Toronto and Matt Tomkins, Sherwood Park, Alta.
Defence: Mark Barberio, Montreal, Jason Demers, Dorval, Que., Brandon Gormley, Murray River, P.E.I., Alex Grant, Antigonish, N.S., Maxim Noreau, Montreal, Owen Power, Mississauga, Ont., Mat Robinson, Calgary and Tyler Wotherspoon, Burnaby, B.C.
Forwards: Daniel Carr, Leduc, Alta., Adam Cracknell, Prince Albert, Sask., David Desharnais, Laurier-Station, Que., Landon Ferraro, Vancouver, Josh Ho-Sang, Thornhill, Ont., Corban Knight, Oliver, B.C., Jack McBain, Toronto, Mason McTavish, Carp, Ont., Eric O'Dell, Ottawa, Eric Staal, Thunder Bay, Ont., Ben Street, Coquitlam, B.C., Adam Tambellini, Edmonton, Jordan Weal, North Vancouver, B.C. and Daniel Winnik, Toronto.