The screaming starts before the player even hits the ice, and he hits the ice immediately.
Then comes the painful writhing, the face buried in sweaty hockey gloves, and the frantic clutching of the right knee.
The player’s coach, Lindy Ruff, quickly jams two pinkies in his mouth and whistles for medical assistance.
Watching Team Canada captain Eric Staal buckle and bellow after his knee is clipped by Team Sweden defenceman Alex Edler Thursday in the teams’ quarterfinal match at the world hockey championships is difficult to take for the most casual fan’s eyes.
But imagine — as Staal jets back to Raleigh, N.C., for an MRI — you’re a fan of the Carolin Hurricanes and you just witnessed your franchise player potentially seriously injured in a game that — let’s be serious — from a North American standpoint, occurred during hockey’s annual consolation tournament.
“It’s an honour, obviously, to play for your country and play with some of the great players we’ve got there,” Staal told The Canadian Press upon learning of his captaincy at this spring’s tournament.
Surely Staal was being candid about feeling honoured. With three world championship appearances (one golden, one silver-lined) and a 2010 Olympic gold medal on his resume, the eldest Staal brother comes by his on-ice patriotism honestly. But don’t believe for a second he’d rather be taking extra strides on the big ice in Stockholm over battling in out in the Eastern Conference semifinals in that other red sweater — the one splattered with a cyclone.
Regardless of the extent of Staal’s injury — a severely sprained MCL that will sideline him a projected three months — that the incident occurred as a result of two prominent NHL players colliding on non-NHL ice raises questions about risk/reward that are only amplified with the Winter Olympics just nine months away.
“Should I let him? Should I not? What type of year did he have? Is it his platform year going into a new contract? Insurance issues… there’s a lot of different factors that weigh into the decision,” says hockey analyst Kevin Weekes, who played alongside a young Staal during his goaltending stint in Carolina. “It’s one thing for your country to say, ‘Hey, we want you to play for us.’ It’s another to look at all the factors. Players, the way they’re wired, you get a chance to represent your country, the majority of times you’re taking it.”
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson takes it any chance he gets.
The Swedish blue-liner fondly recalls his first game at the world championships, in 2009, when an injury to a first-stringer allowed him to get into the action as a reserve. He played well enough — and the Leafs played poorly enough — to return to the worlds in 2010 and 2011, winning a bronze and a silver, respectively, with his countrymen. He’s proud to say he scored the bronze-medal-winning goal for Sweden to defeat the U.S. in 2010.
“I felt like I wanted to extend my season and represent my country, so I played a couple more games. I think everyone feels the same way: you just want to go out there and win that gold,” says Gunnarsson, who recommends all NHLers with the opportunity to compete in the worlds go for it.
Gunnarsson had no reservations about being injured off the clock, and neither, he says, did the Leafs.
“They thought it would be good experience to play a couple more games at a high level. Usually the top teams – Russia, Canada, USA – they bring a couple NHL guys. It’s never been a problem for me to go, and I’m happy about that.”
The worlds also appear to mean more to Europeans. Alex Ovechkin — fractured foot and all — was quick to hop a flight this week and represent Russia, scoring a goal and an assist in his nation’s 8-3 loss to the U.S. Thursday.
But not every player is given the green light by his club team.
He won’t name names, but Weekes can recall situations where management, coaches, player agents, and strength and conditioning trainers have all advised players not to attend the worlds because of financial or medical risks.
Staal’s boss, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, however, is not one to discourage participation — even after his star fell.
“I think Jimmy’s quote says it all: Any time you’re fortunate enough to play for your country in anything – be it checkers, gymnastics, track and field, whatever it is – you want to represent your country. Most people do,” Weekes says.
“For Eric, he’s a very competitive guy – more competitive than people give him credit for, and he’s representing Canada internationally on so many levels. The fact that it happened there, it’s uncontrollable. Who’s to say that couldn’t happen on a Tuesday night, ‘Canes and Predators? Or ‘Canes and Jets on a Friday night in Winnipeg? You don’t know.”
Many Canadians believe the worlds don’t even count, due to the absence of a true best-of-best roster. (Some of that might be pride; if you haven’t made it past he quarterfinals in four years, then, well, it must not be worth it.) But they do count towards growing the sport of hockey internationally — which, in turn, is crucial to fueling interest (read: dollars) in the NHL.
So you can view Edler’s frightening knee-on-knee with Staal as another sign that the Hurricanes have had awful luck this year, or the Staals have again been jabbed with the business end of fate, but don’t let it cloud you into thinking that international hockey is not worth the jet fuel and insurance and hotel bills.
“We love the unpredictability of sport, but there’s times that unpredictability bites us,” Weekes said. “This is one of those things.”