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Canada mixes youth and experience in quest for Olympic men’s hockey gold

Grizzled Stanley Cup winner Eric Staal and teenage 1st overall draft pick Owen Power anchor team
Canada’s Owen Power (25) is stopped by Czech Republic’s goalie Jakub Malek (1) as Jan Mysak (19) defends during first period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Sunday, December 26, 2021. Power is among the players named to Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Canada is turning to a mix of youthful exuberance and battle-scarred experience in its quest for Olympic men’s hockey gold minus the country’s NHL stars.

Eric Staal, 37, and Mason McTavish, 18, are two centres bookending the 25-man roster announced Tuesday for the upcoming Beijing Games.

Staal will be looking for his second Olympic gold medal after winning on home soil 12 years ago in Vancouver — a month after McTavish turned seven years old.

Also heading to China after the NHL bowed out of the tournament last month because of COVID-19 concerns are 19-year-old defenceman Owen Power — the No. 1 pick at the 2021 draft — 20-year-old goaltender Devon Levi and 22-year-old forward Jack McBain.

And while there’s no Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid to be found, Canada has plenty of NHL miles on a roster that also includes professionals playing in North America, Europe and Russia.

Making up part of the veteran forward group with Staal assembled by general manager Shane Doan and the rest of Hockey Canada’s brain trust are Daniel Winnik (36), Adam Cracknell (36) and David Desharnais (35), while defencemen Jason Demers (33) and Mark Barberio (31) are some other names fans might recognize.

“I have so many fond memories of competing at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and winning a gold medal on home ice,” Staal said in a press release. “The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport, and I know our entire team is grateful for the opportunity.”

Hockey Canada and the national governing bodies of the sports’ other powerhouses had been banking on NHLers going to Bejing until last month when the league nixed plans after close to 100 games were postponed because of the coronarvirus.

“The management group and coaching staff have worked diligently to evaluate and select players that we believe will give us the best chance to win a gold medal,” Doan said in a release. “It truly is a special honour to be able to represent your country at the Olympics.

“We know this group of athletes and staff will embrace the opportunity and make all Canadians proud.”

There isn’t nearly as much runway for preparations compared to 2018 when the NHL skipped the Games for financial reasons, but 10 of the players named Tuesday suited up for Canada at Russia’s Channel One Cup in December with Claude Julien behind the bench.

Doan and Julien were also set to lead Canada at the Spengler Cup, which was cancelled because of COVID-19, and were on standby as replacements in the event the NHL withdrew.

Following a training camp and exhibition game in Switzerland, the Canadians will travel to Beijing before playing one more warmup contest against the United States.

Canada opens tournament play Feb. 10 against Germany before taking on the U.S. (Feb. 12) and hosts China (Feb. 13) to close out round-robin action in Group A.

Canada struggled to score goals in securing bronze four years ago in Pyeongchang when the youngest player on the roster was 25, but has more skill up front this time with the likes of Staal, Desharnais, McTavish — the third overall pick last year by the Anaheim Ducks — Josh Ho-Sang and McBain.

There’s also a significant age gap.

McTavish was in diapers when Staal went No. 2 overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in June 2003, while Power had yet to celebrate his first birthday.

McTavish, who was returned to junior by Anaheim and will be playing on his sixth team this season, and Power were both focal points for Canada at the world junior hockey championship before the under-20 tournament was cancelled because of COVID-19 last month.

A member of the “Triple Gold Club” — along with that previous Olympic triumph, he also won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and world championships in 2007 — Staal hasn’t played in the NHL since last season’s run to the final with the Montreal Canadiens, but recently suited up with the AHL’s Iowa Wild in preparation for Beijing.

The veteran of 17 NHL seasons has 441 goals and 593 assists in 1,293 regular-season games to go along with 59 points in 83 playoff contests.

Power is the big name on the back end after the six-foot-six defenceman with Michigan of the NCAA went No. 1 to the Buffalo Sabres last summer, but is also at least 10 years younger than the rest of Canada’s blue line.

The roster has lots of top-end experience mixed with youth on forward and defence, but the crease is likely the biggest question mark entering the tournament.

Levi, who was named tournament MVP for Canada’s silver-medal performance at last year’s world juniors, has put up gaudy numbers in the NCAA with Northeastern this season, sporting a .948 save percentage and a 1.47 goals-against average, but remains largely untested.

Matt Tomkins, 27, and Edward Pasquale, 31, are the other goaltenders on the roster, with the latter’s three games as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018-19 the extent of the trio’s NHL experience.

There are also three returning players from the 2018 squad in forward Eric O’Dell and defencemen Maxim Noreau and Mat Robinson.

Canada won gold with NHLers in 2002, 2010 and 2014, but hasn’t topped the podium in an Olympic tournament that wasn’t best-on-best since 1952.

The NHL went to five straight Games between 1998 and 2014, but declined to participate four years ago in a tournament that was won by the Russians.

—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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