RALEIGH, N.C. – It has been two days since Eric Staal was told that he won’t be a member of Team Canada at the Olympics, but the sting of that news hasn’t even started subsiding. And it probably won’t for a very long time.
“To be honest, my gut feeling, yeah I’m bitter about it,” Staal told Sportsnet on Thursday morning at PNC Arena.
Much like Rick Nash, who was included on the 25-man roster despite struggling this season, Staal has a solid history of representing his county internationally. He also has ties to Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman. Playing for Yzerman-run teams, Staal helped Canada to gold at the 2007 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Moscow along with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
So even though the Carolina Hurricanes captain got out of the gate slowly after rehabbing a knee injury this summer, he figured that past performance would work in his favour, especially since he’s put up 26 points in 24 games dating back to mid-November. Yet what stood out to Staal in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Olympic announcement was how little his name was even mentioned.
A voicemail from Yzerman confirmed that he wouldn’t be part of the group heading to Sochi. The 29-year-old forward returned the call and didn’t hide his disappointment when leaving a message of his own on Yzerman’s phone.
“Being there last time and knowing what it takes to win a gold and feeling like I was a good contributor to the group and someone that brings it when it counts—especially the end—I wanted that opportunity again,” said Staal. “But obviously they felt other guys were going better here.”
The decisions at forward were the toughest Canada’s management group had to make and they're the ones that are most likely to be second-guessed if the team doesn’t win gold in Russia next month. Yzerman even left off his own captain, Martin St. Louis, who is the top scoring player in the NHL over the past four seasons.
Staal is a natural centre who played wing at the 2010 Olympics and saw a fit for himself in a similar role this time around. He was edged out on the left side by Patrick Sharp—a fellow native of Thunder Bay, Ont.—Matt Duchene, Chris Kunitz and Patrick Marleau.
Yzerman was well aware of the heartache he was sending through the hockey world as he phoned up the toughest cuts to deliver the news himself. The Hockey Hall of Famer was cut from a pair of Canada Cup teams during his playing days and evoked the same word as Staal when recalling what that experience was like.
“To be perfectly honest, I was bitter—extremely bitter,” said Yzerman. “It took a while to get over that. But you know what? You do.
“These experiences are hard, these players are all proud and confident in themselves and all believe they should be there. I understand that.”
The circumstances were not in Staal’s favour the last few months. First, he went to Stockholm with Canada’s world championship team in May looking to boost his Olympic credentials and ended up being placed on an energy line, rather than a scoring one, with Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read. Then he suffered a serious knee injury in the quarter-finals after a taking dirty hit from Alex Edler (the Swedish defenceman will sit out the first two games in Sochi as part of his suspension).
The subsequent recovery from a Grade 3 MCL sprain no doubt contributed to his slow start—as did injuries to linemates Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty, which forced the Hurricanes to rotate a number of players around their lineup.
However, Staal wasn’t interested in using his injury as an excuse while discussing the omission on Thursday morning. Even with a slow start, he still felt that he was better than some of the players selected and believed he was ready to show his best on the Olympic stage again.
“I’ve been there before, I’ve contributed on gold medal-winning teams and you want that opportunity again,” he said.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in that he won’t get it.
“It feels just as bad,” said Staal. “I’m obviously disappointed, but sometimes that’s what life throws at you. It’s all about how you respond. That’s the way it goes and I don’t want to make excuses.
“There’ll be another one eventually.”
Right now that one just feels a long way away.