Eric O’Dell embracing checking-line role with Team Canada

Latvia's Pauls Svars, left, and Canada's Eric O'Dell fight for the puck during an exhibition hockey game ahead of the 2018 Olympics hockey tournament. (Roman Koksarov/AP)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – At the end of a 2015-16 season spent entirely in the American Hockey League and included a trade from the Ottawa Senators to the Buffalo Sabres, Eric O’Dell reached a critical decision point in his career.

An Anaheim Ducks second-round pick in 2008, he had already been through four organizations, enjoyed some solid years in the minors, appeared in 41 games over two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, and faced uncertain prospects of getting into any more NHL contests.

So the Ottawa-born centre surveyed the scene, swallowed hard and decided to make the jump to HC Sochi of the Kontinental Hockey League, a move that unexpectedly but ultimately set him up for a spot on the Canadian Olympic hockey team.

"Each guy knows what opportunity they have going into the year and I just thought my best interests were in going overseas, make a bit more money and trying to play the next-best hockey there is besides the NHL," O’Dell said Wednesday, after Canada completed its final practice ahead of Thursday’s Olympic opener versus Switzerland. "My family thought it would be alright if I left that year, and it’s definitely worked out for me."

Very much so.

Now in his second season with Sochi, O’Dell is enjoying life in the resort town he describes as "kind of like the Russian Florida," serving as captain under head coach Sergei Zubov while sharing the team lead in points, collecting 13 goals and 18 assists in 46 games.

That resume, in part, prompted Hockey Canada to give him a long look during their selection process even though early on he seemed like a long shot to make the club. But he impressed with his tenacity and he’ll be centring Rob Klinkhammer and Maxim Lapierre on a fourth line that will be counted on to play the body and provide some spark.

"I think that’s what got me here, got me on the team," said O’Dell. "I’m going to continue to play hard and be a positive player in the room and on the bench. That’s my role."

Head coach Willie Desjardins, who wouldn’t reveal Thursday’s starting goaltender even though all signs pointed to Ben Scrivens getting the nod, wants to see O’Dell’s line use its size to establish possession low in the offensive zone and cycle the puck.

But he was hesitant to label the trio his energy line, pointing out that the entire team needs to have that gear in order for the Canadians to succeed. Although they’ve won their three exhibition games since naming the roster, including a 4-1 win over Sweden in Incheon on Monday, Desjardins said it was "hard to judge" his team’s recent play and added, "I don’t know if it’s been quite what I expected."

"I think when guys were trying to make the team, they were playing harder and once they made it, they were worried about getting injured, so I think there was a bit of a lull," Desjardins said. "I’m hoping we’ll get back to the team that’s ready to go and play hard again."

O’Dell, distinctive on the ice with his bushy beard, is intent on bringing that to the table, although running into opponents is much trickier on the wider international ice.

"It’s pretty tough to run around all the time, you’ll get tired," he said. "So you’ve got to pick and choose your spots but you adapt to it and it’s pretty fun."

The role isn’t what he’s been doing since he left North America – on Sochi he’s "more of a skilled guy, power-play guy," he said – but the 27-year-old understands why he needs to take a backseat here.

"Everyone on this team you could say is a power-play guy but when it comes to Team Canada everyone has a different job," said O’Dell. "You buy into the team and that’s what it takes to win."

Especially since playing in the Olympics wasn’t even a consideration when he decided to sign in the KHL two summers ago.

His wife and four-year-old daughter both "love it" in Sochi and he’s happy to keep playing there but if his performance in Pyeongchang happens to open up a window back into the NHL next season, all the better.

"Everyone is kind of in the same boat, they didn’t think the Olympics would be a possibility for them, but now it’s a reality," said O’Dell. "Everyone is going to be watching these games and I know it’s big for every single player in here. You’ve got to embrace the fact that you’re playing, do well and get the win."

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