Eric Staal wasn’t aiming to take part in his third Olympics.
Claude Julien, meanwhile, agreed to coach Canada at two December tournaments simply to get back behind the bench.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, closed plenty of doors.
But for Staal and Julien, it’s opened another wide open — and there’s a chance it could eventually lead both men back to the NHL.
The decorated duo is set to lead Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team at the upcoming Beijing Games after the NHL withdrew from the tournament last month because of coronavirus concerns.
And while fans are disappointed the likes of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin won’t be heading to China to battle for gold, players and coaches like Staal and Julien have an opportunity they surely didn’t think was realistic a few months ago.
“The idea and the goal was initially to get back in the NHL,” said the 37-year-old Staal, who had been skating on his own before suiting up for a string of games with the AHL’s Iowa Wild earlier this month after Hockey Canada came calling.
“Funny how things work, and how things work out.”
WATCH | Breaking down Canada’s roster:
Another NHL shot might very well be in the cards for Staal — and veteran of 1,376 NHL games, a Stanley Cup champion, and the likely captain of a Canadian squad featuring a number of young players — with a good Olympic showing.
“This opportunity was something that is too good to pass up,” he added.
Fired by the Montreal Canadiens for a second time last February, Julien will also have a lot of eyes on him as the country looks to medal for a second straight non-NHL Olympics following its bronze four years ago in Pyeongchang.
“Being given that opportunity is outstanding,” said the 61-year-old, who was an assistant when Canada topped the podium with NHLers in 2014. “I’m feeling extremely lucky to be in this position.
“I want to take advantage of it.”
Julien has been behind the bench for 1,399 NHL games, won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, and helped guide the Boston Bruins to the Cup.
“He’s obviously had a lot of success,” said Staal, who was on Canada’s Olympic taxi squad in 2006 and registered six points in seven games to help capture gold in 2010. “His record — his resume — speaks for itself.”
WATCH | The history of men’s hockey at the Olympics, explained:
Julien said Staal’s value to Canada will come both on and off the ice in Beijing.
“You can never underestimate experience, the experience of having lived through it,” said Julien, who has players from seven different leagues on the 2022 roster. “[Coaches] do the best you can to bring the team together, but there’s got to be some of that happening inside the dressing room.
“That’s where guys like that can be really helpful.”
Canadian general manager Shane Doan said Staal, who also won gold at the world championships in 2007, proved he could still get the job done during that AHL stint.
“When you think of Team Canada, you think of a guy like Eric Staal,” Doan said. “That gives credibility to the group.”
Staal, however, needed a thumbs up to chase another medal — and perhaps breathe new life into his NHL career — from his wife and three sons after spending a lot of time away from the family playing in Montreal as part of the Canadiens’ improbable run to last season’s final.
“They were really pushing me to do it,” he said. “Just over the moon excited.”
Doan, meanwhile, has been impressed by Julien since both signed up with Hockey Canada for Russia’s Channel One Cup and the Spengler Cup in Switzerland — the latter was cancelled due to COVID-19 — and as standbys in case the NHL nixed its Olympic plans.
“A man of character and integrity,” Doan said. “He could have that arrogance or that presence that’s intimidating, and yet he just unarms the people when they come in the room.
“It’s probably one of his biggest strengths.”
WATCH | Youth, experience blend on Team Canada:
There are only 32 NHL coaching jobs, so Julien might have to wait for his next opportunity no matter what happens next month.
But Staal, like a couple of veterans looking for one last shot after the 2018 Olympics, is banking on teams seeing immediate value in what he hopes to bring in Beijing.
“I’d like to think for me it’s just another chapter in my career and my hockey book that ends in the right result,” he said. “Sometimes an opportunity like this falls in your lap, and you need to cherish and relish that moment.
“If it goes great, and I’m a part of this success, we’ll see what lies after this tournament.”
Tkachuk replaces Batherson
Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk has been added to the Atlantic Division’s roster for the upcoming NHL all-star weekend.
Tkachuk replaces Drake Batherson, who was injured in Ottawa’s 5-0 win over visiting Buffalo on Tuesday night when he was shoved into the boards by Sabres goalie Aaron Dell.
WATCH | Batherson injured after hit by Dell:
It’s the second all-star nod for Tkachuk, who replaced injured Toronto centre Auston Matthews in 2020.
Tkachuk has 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 33 games this season, his fourth since being selected fourth overall by Ottawa in the 2018 draft.
He was named the 10th captain in Senators history earlier this season.
Rangers forward Chris Kreider sat sixth in goals in the NHL the morning of Jan. 13, five back of Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl, and two adrift of Toronto Maple Leafs centre Matthews and Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin.
After finding the back of the net nine times in New York’s last six games, however, Kreider sat alone atop the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy race with an even 30 heading into Wednesday’s action.
Dallas Stars centre Joe Pavelski has also been making moves on the stats sheet.
The 37-year-old has a league-leading 27 points in his last 14 games dating back to Dec. 17. Included in those numbers are 10 goals and an NHL-best 19 points at even strength over that span.
Pavelski has 48 points in 40 games to sit tied for ninth in league scoring heading into Wednesday.
“This is not a fluke,” Stars head coach Rick Bowness said following Pavelski’s two-goal, two-assist performance in Tuesday’s 5-1 road win against the New Jersey Devils. “He works very hard. He’s a true pro, great character, and a great teammate.
“It’s the consistency at this age, at this level, that he plays with that’s the most impressive thing.”