Eric Staal has fond memories of battling it out with younger brothers Marc, Jordan and Jared on the backyard rink built with love by their dad Henry on the family sod farm near Thunder Bay, Ont.
So for most of the past four months, with no job in the hockey world, the 37-year-old Staal spent his time playing the role of hockey dad — tending to his own outdoor rink along with shuttling Parker, 12, Levi, 10, and Finley, 7, to minor hockey practices and games.
"They all play, so it seems like I'm at a rink every night," Staal said Friday from Des Moines, Iowa. "And I've stayed on the ice personally, so that's kept the mind fresh and the legs engaged."
With 21 days to the 2022 Winter Olympics, Staal is resuming his own hockey career on a professional tryout with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League. The plan is to shake off any rust and prove to the Team Canada brass that he belongs on the team that will challenge for gold in Beijing.
The NHL officially pulled out of the Beijing Olympics in December with the COVID-19 Omicron variant tearing through teams, causing a rash of game cancellations. As such, Hockey Canada is scrambling to cobble together a team consisting mainly of Canadians playing overseas, American Hockey League players and a sprinkling of young stars from the junior ranks and the NCAA.
"We all know the NHL is the best league in the world," said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada's senior vice-president of national teams. "But that doesn't mean that some really good players aren't in that league. And so our job is to find those guys and then put the best product we can on the ice."
In the twilight of his career, Staal would be counted on as a leader who would be unfazed by the pressure or the magnitude of the stage. He played mainly on the fourth line last season during a magical playoff run for the Montreal Canadiens, registering two goals and eight points through 21 post-season appearances.
Candidate to captain Olympic team
With more than 1,000 points in nearly 1,300 regular-season NHL games, he is a likely candidate to serve as Canada's captain in Beijing.
Other former NHL players in the mix for roster spots include defenceman Jason Demers, centre Eric Fehr, forward Josh Ho-Sang, and goalie Devan Dubnyk.
Former Arizona Coyotes star Shane Doan was officially announced as Team Canada's general manager on Friday, as was former Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julian as the head coach.
"The chance to represent Canada at the Olympic Games is something that you can never just look away from," Staal said Friday before hitting the ice against the Chicago Wolves. "You know, that's pretty special, and would be an honour if I get that chance.
"I still have an edge and desire to compete and battle and play."
I still have an edge and desire to compete and battle and play. - Eric Staal
Staal has already done it all, from a hockey standpoint. A member of the Triple Gold Club, he's one of only 29 players to win Olympic gold, a world championship title and the Stanley Cup.
Competing in the Olympics is a peak life experience — and Staal would dearly love the opportunity to add to the gold he won at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"It's the Olympic Games," said Staal, who also served as a member of the taxi squad at the 2006 Turin Games. "It's a special vibe. It's a spirit of the games that is kind of unmatched by anything else. I still remember those feelings vividly from 2006 and 2010. If I can get that chance again, I know it'll be special and it's important.
"So hopefully, the next little while goes well, and maybe I'll get that chance."
'Can't control what you can't control'
The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly in China, leading to new restrictions and lockdowns. The Games are scheduled to take place in a "closed-loop system" designed to bar any contact between the public and those inside the Olympic bubble.
The athletes will travel between hotels and the rink in special vehicles. Anyone who leaves bubble will be forced to quarantine for three weeks.
"I'm not too worried to be completely honest," Staal said of the tensions heading into the Games. "You know, there's definitely a lot of restrictions everywhere with a lot of different thoughts and feelings on everything to do with COVID and vaccines and everything else. But I'm looking at it as an opportunity to play in the Olympic Games.
"You can control what you can control and, and for me, it's about seeing how I feel in this next stretch and how the body responds. If I get that chance to go over there. I'll be excited to do that."