Skip to main content

Head coach Ivan Zanatta, from Toronto, runs the China men’s Olympic team hockey practice on Feb. 1, 2022 at the Winter Olympics in Beijing,Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Eric Staal is choosing to look at the situation in a positive light.

He doesn’t have much choice.

Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team is set to play in the qualification round of the Beijing Games against China after failing to secure one of the top four seeds and an automatic bye into the quarter-finals.

The Canadians finished second in Group A with victories over Germany and the host nation, but were undone by a 20-minute stretch in a 4-2 loss to the United States that was ultimately the difference in both that contest and the pool standings.

“This tournament is all about developing as you move forward,” Staal, Canada’s captain in Beijing, said in the wake of Sunday’s 5-0 victory over China. “But obviously stakes get raised, right? It’s you lose, you’re done. That’s the big thing moving forward. Our guys know that.

“We’ll be preparing the right way and be ready to go for the next one.”

That next one will be a rematch against the Chinese back at National Indoor Stadium on Tuesday at 9:10 p.m. local time (8:10 a.m. ET).

“We know they play a hard game and they have a lot of pride,” said Canadian forward Corban Knight, tied for the team lead with two goals in three games. “It’s not going to be easy.”

In reality, it should be.

Even minus its best after the NHL withdrew from the Olympics because of COVID-19 concerns, the gulf in both talent and depth is vast.

China, with 18 players who were born or grew up in North America, was outscored 16-2 in its three round-robin games, but kept things close in a 3-2 loss to Germany.

“We’re going to get another shot at them,” Ivano Zanatta, China’s Toronto-born head coach, said of Canada. “The only thing we can do is organize, get our bodies together again, get a good rest and be ready to go at it.”

The Canadians got the job done Sunday, but have yet to put together a truly convincing performance at these Games.

Looking at the glass being half-full, another contest might be good for a team looking to find its stride. A pessimist might argue rest, including for a player like the 37-year-old Staal, would be more beneficial.

Like his captain, Canadian head coach Claude Julien sees the extra 60 minutes as a building block for a team that didn’t get any true live action together before facing Germany in its opener.

“The qualification round gives us the opportunity to play another game and it gives us an opportunity to improve,” he said. “The more we play, the more you hope you get better.”

Tuesday’s winner will face Sweden, which automatically qualified for the quarters along with the United States, Russian Olympic Committee and Finland, just 24 hours later.

The other qualification-round games will see Slovakia play Germany, Denmark take on Latvia and the Czech Republic meet Switzerland.

China is well aware of its limitations, but also eager to get a shot in the knockout stage as the team attempts to grow the sport and spark interest in this country of more than 1.4 billion people.

“It’s an honour and a privilege,” Zanatta said of playing Canada. “To have that opportunity with … a startup hockey nation, it’s fantastic. It’s a fantastic moment. You’ve got two extremes, two poles.

“And we’re showing we’re not that bad after all.”

The coach added patience with a program that only really got off the ground once Beijing was awarded the 2022 Games is key.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, that’s for sure,” Zanatta said of Chinese hockey. “The kids, the fans watching these games, maybe that can stimulate the interest, too.

“You don’t learn to play only from a good coach. You learn to play when you’re next to a good player. That’s where you raise your level. Because it’s every moment. It’s every little thing. That’s the key to taking the next step.”

Canada, meanwhile, will be looking to use a step it was hoping to avoid to its advantage in its quest to win a non-NHL gold medal for the first time since 1952.

“Everything that happens, you’ve got to look at it in a positive way,” Julien said.

“Hopefully it plays to our advantage.”