Blame Alexander Edler. Blame the Olympics. Blame the IIHF for holding a more-or-less meaningless tournament after every non-Olympic season. Pick someone to blame, because if Eric Staal’s knee injury is as bad as it first looked Thursday, there’s going to be more than enough blame to go around.
The replay of Staal writhing in agony on the ice after a needless, vicious, careless, heartless, thoughtless knee-on-knee hit by Edler in Sweden’s 3-2 shootout win over Canada will turn the stomach of any Carolina Hurricanes fan – any hockey fan -- before they reflexively turn away.
It was that ugly, that predatory – Edler, the Vancouver Canucks defenseman, cruising in from outside Staal’s frame of vision as Staal flipped a backhand at the net to lean in with his right shoulder, tense his body and catch Staal squarely on his own extended right knee. This isn’t the first time for Edler, who was suspended two games by the NHL in March for hitting an opposing goalie in the head behind the net. Even if his actions aren’t malicious, they’re certainly careless. Ligaments don’t know the difference.
This was the worst-case scenario for the Hurricanes, their captain and most important player suffering what certainly has the potential to be a devastating injury while playing in a tournament that means absolutely nothing to them.
First Cam Ward gets hurt, sinking this season. Now next season is hanging in the balance, awaiting an MRI exam on Staal’s right knee. As the Hurricanes await the results with crossed fingers and clenched teeth, it’s almost impossible to forecast the damage done if Staal misses some or all of next season.
It’s not just the scoring the Hurricanes would miss, the electric chemistry he developed with Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty. The sheer amount of minutes Staal plays would not be easily replaced. His calming leadership would certainly be missed. Assets that would normally go to upgrades on defense and at forward would have to be allocated to a stop-gap solution at center. It’s a nightmare scenario in every way.
Still, these things happen. While Edler certainly appeared to target Staal’s extended leg, this could just as easily have happened in an accidental collision between teammates. Playing in any hockey game entails some degree of risk. That’s one reason why playing in the World Championships is a task not all players embrace, particularly after a long NHL season.
Staal wanted to go to Finland, wanted to captain Canada at the Worlds, and the Hurricanes neither tried to stop him nor should have. Staal wants to be an important piece of Team Canada at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and captaining his country now only bolsters his candidacy. (He’s a lock to return to the roster, but it never hurts to stay on the good side of the people in charge, especially if they’re wavering whether to bring a second or third Staal brother along.)
There’s always that pressure, on Canadians and Americans alike, to play now so they’ll be favorably considered when the time comes. And there’s always the appeal of representing one’s country, even outside of the Olympics. For some players, this is the only chance they’ll get. Wearing that jersey matters. It always has.
So they accept the risk. And teams accept the risk, because they want to keep their players happy -- or, because they’ll benefit from a player’s international experience, as has been the case for the Hurricanes with Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk.
There is always that risk that something like this could happen. And now Staal and the Hurricanes may end up paying dearly.