Hockey

Tim Wharnsby - Monday Oct. 28, 2013 19:00 ET

Staal brothers, Patrick Sharp lead Team Canada’s Thunder Bay contingent

Northern Ontario NHLers high on list of Canada’s Olympic hockey hopefuls

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    Jordan Staal followed his brother to Peterborough in the OHL and then to the big leagues. (Photo courtesy Staal family)

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    Eric Staal blazed a path to the NHL and it all started with his playing minor hockey in Thunder Bay. (Photo courtesy Staal family)

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    Jared Staal is following his brothers footsteps toward the NHL. (Photo courtesy Staal family)

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    Before he joined the Rangers Marc Staal grew up playing minor hockey in Thunder Bay. (Photo courtesy Staal family)l

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Thunder Bay is not far from Landmark, Manitoba, the longitudinal centre of Canada.

The drive is about seven hours and 20 minutes to be exact.But Thunder Bay, the city that sits atop Lake Superior, may as well be the centre of the hockey universe when it comes to Canada these days.

The area has long enjoyed a proud history in the game, dating back to Memorial Cup championships won by the Fort William War Veterans in 1922 and the Port Arthur West Bruins in 1948.

Hockey Hall of Famer Alex Delvecchio, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s, hails from Fort William, which is now part of Thunder Bay.Recently, the Stanley Cup has made four visits to the city because of Eric Staal (2006), his brother Jordan (2009) and Patrick Sharp (2010 and 2013) combined to win the prized trophy four times in seven seasons.Now, the three, along with a third Staal brother in defenceman Marc, find themselves candidates to play for Canada at the Sochi Olympics.

Sharp and the Staal brothers were part of the Canadian team’s orientation camp in August.

“I was excited to be part of group like that,” Marc Staal said. “It’s pretty cool to be among that group, surrounded by all that talent.“It was pretty surreal to be there with your brothers.”

The 25-year-old Staal is healthy again after a serious eye injury cut short his season last year. He’s also excited about the Olympic possibility as well as a fresh start with the New York Rangers and a new head coach in Alain Vigneault.

“When I started training again this summer, things started to feel normal again,” Marc Staal said.“I tried to comeback for a playoff game, but physically I was just too far behind to step into the intensity of something like the playoffs and I was having difficulty with my depth perception.”

As much as the Canadian Olympic team will miss an injured Chris Pronger, 6-foot-4, 207-pound Marc Staal gives Canada a strong-skating, solid two-way defender with a long reach. He’s comfortable on the big ice, too. His second gold medal with the Canadian junior team was won in Leksand, Sweden in 2007. When Eric Staal and Canada won gold in Vancouver in 2010, Marc and Jordan took a Caribbean holiday with their future wives.

Sharp was back in Thunder Bay and followed Canada’s exploits like a fervent fan. He sent encouragement through some texts to his Chicago Blackhawk teammates Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews. Unlike those players and many of the others at the orientation camp, the 31-year-old Sharp had to wait until he was 26 before his first experience in a Canadian sweater, which was at the 2008 world championship in Quebec City and Halifax.

“I think it’s fair to say I’m a late bloomer,” Sharp said. “That’s why I chose to go the college route [to the University of Vermont]. I needed time to mature physically and grow before I got to the pro game. I’m kind of jealous for these 18 or 19 year olds who step right into the NHL and become stars right away.

“I’m very proud to get to this level. One of the players I’ve always looked up to and admired is Martin St. Louis. We went to the same school. He’s a couple years older.”

Sharp remembers his first experience with the Canadian national team five years ago. He scored on one of his first shifts and remarked that the experience made him a better player.

“We had just been eliminated that year and there was Steve Yzerman, who was the general manager of Team Canada then, too, who wanted to talk to a bunch of us. Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews were invited, too.“It was a thrill. We were excited. I didn’t care if I was going to play centre or wing, first line or fourth line. I learned a lot. I watched the way others prepared and the experience made me a better player.”

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