HELSINKI – Versatile Canadian centre Eric O'Dell deserves an evening off.
The 27-year-old Ottawa native has been Canada's best forward in the first two games of Karjala Cup. He has exhibited a strong two-way game that has him in a good position to crack the Canadian men's Olympic team roster after a tournament-opening win 3-2 win against Switzerland on Wednesday and a 2-0 loss to Sweden on Friday.
- Here's what Canada's Olympic roster could look like
- Canadian assistant has been preparing for this job all his life
He has impressive instincts. He can perform on the power play and penalty kill as well as score – as he did in the tournament opener.
Canadian general manager Sean Burke has been impressed with O'Dell and therefore will look at other hopefuls in Canada's tournament finale against Finland, 2-0, on Sunday. Besides, O'Dell will be back in action with HC Sochi in the Kontinental Hockey League on Monday.
O'Dell will return to play for Canada at the Channel One Cup in Moscow next month in an attempt to lock up a roster spot in Pyeongchang.
"This has been exciting and a lot of fun getting to know the guys," O'Dell said. "It is such a good dressing room and a good atmosphere. But I guess whenever you get a bunch of Canadian hockey players together who are passionate about the game, it's going to be a good time."
National team experience, success
Like most of the Canadian Olympic team hopefuls, O'Dell has taken an interesting journey in his career to reach this point.
In junior with the Sudbury Wolves, he was good enough to land a spot on Canada's under-18 team that won gold at the 2008 World under-18 championship in Kazan, Russia, a club with talented players such as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene and Brayden Schenn.
A couple of months later, the Anaheim Ducks selected O'Dell in the second round with the 39th-overall pick in the NHL draft. But after attending Ducks training camp and enjoying a strong second season with Sudbury, O'Dell was watching the 2009 trade-deadline day developments on TV and discovered he had been traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for forward Erik Christensen.
O'Dell continued to increase his production in his third season with the Wolves and after an early first-round playoff exit was summoned by the Thrashers to finish out the 2009-10 regular season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves.
Shortly after his three-game stint with the Wolves, O'Dell endured a health scare. He began suffering from heart palpitations. Doctors discovered he had a hole in his heart since birth that went undetected. The ailment was mended through surgery but put him on the sidelines for six months.
O'Dell, however, never slowed. When he returned to action, he checked in with 20 goals and 44 points in 39 regular season games. He was even better in the playoffs with seven goals and 12 points in eight outings.
"I had to work myself back into shape, but I never did feel any problems after the surgery," O'Dell said.
Meanwhile, the Thrashers had moved to Winnipeg and O'Dell began working his way up through the minors with the St. John's IceCaps. In 2013-14, O'Dell was not only promoted for 30 games in the NHL, his IceCaps advanced all the way to the Calder Cup final.
St. John's lost that final to the Texas Stars, who were coached by current Canadian Olympic team head coach Willie Desjardins, but the experience will stick with O'Dell for a lifetime.
"That St. John's team was a special bunch," he said. "We weren't the most talented team, but we stuck to our roles, executed, and beat some pretty good teams in that run. You know, we still have a group chat with that team and keep in close touch to see how everybody is doing."
When asked why he never landed a regular spot in the NHL, O'Dell reasoned it was about opportunity. He was a first or second line player and with the Jets, he never saw more than a fourth-line role. As a result, O'Dell knew it was time to follow the money and land a spot with a team in the KHL.
'A unique opportunity'
"I hope I get that opportunity again to play in the NHL," said O'Dell, well aware of all the NHL scouts taking in the Karjala Cup this week. "I think each player knows, depending on the situation you're in with your organization, you know when the time is right to go to Europe.
"For me, it looked like I was destined for the AHL again. I have a family [wife and daughter] I have to think about. You want to play hockey, but at the same time you have to think about money and the situation was good over here. Now I have to think about playing well over here and getting another shot [in the NHL]."
The fact he landed in Sochi, where Canada successfully defended its Olympic gold medal, has not been lost on O'Dell. He watched the gold-medal game with his St. John's teammates at their hotel in the morning and then set up the winner from his linemate Kael Mouillierat in a wild 6-5 win for the IceCaps against the Portland Pirates that afternoon.
"That was so cool and so is this," O'Dell said. "When I left to play in Sochi, a place I really have enjoyed living in, I never could have predicted NHL players were not going to be allowed to play in the Olympics.
"But that has given all us a unique opportunity, something we're working hard to make the most of."