While Christian Thomas was on the ice at the Toyota Sportsplex for practice on Jan. 11, his cell phone was back in the locker room, ringing incessantly.
The missed calls — four in all — were coming from Calgary, and someone was desperately trying to deliver some big news.
After practice, Thomas saw the missed calls, redialed the number and was promptly placed on a conference call with management from the Team Canada hockey team and his father, Steve.
The elder Thomas excitedly broke the news to his son — he had been selected to play for Team Canada’s hockey team in the 2018 Olympics.
“It’s a dream come true,” Thomas said. “Growing up, especially in Canada, we always watched the Olympics.”
Since the National Hockey League decided not to participate in this year’s Olympics, the decision created an opportunity for players like Thomas, who is playing under an American Hockey League contract this season. But Thomas earned the chance to represent his country with his strong play in the Karjala Cup in November and the Spengler Cup in December, both of which were used by Canada as evaluation tournaments to shape its roster.
Thomas missed several Penguin games while he was away competing in the tournaments, and he said the experience wouldn’t be possible without the Pittsburgh organization allowing him to be away.
“They allowed me to play in these tournaments and now, because of that, I get to play in the Olympics,” he said.
Thomas already has a list of accomplishments in his six-year pro career. The former second-round draft pick of the New York Rangers has logged 27 NHL games, and last season he led the Hershey Bears with 24 goals. Thomas hopes to add a Stanley Cup championship to his resume one day, but an Olympic medal may be equally monumental.
“My dad played 20 years in the NHL and didn’t win a Stanley Cup. That trophy isn’t easy to win,” Thomas said. “But this is my one chance, probably my only chance, to win a gold medal.”
Thomas has already departed to join his Olympic teammates in Latvia on Jan. 28 where the squad will play a few exhibition games before heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea. He’ll be joined by his parents and sister, and soon, Thomas’ Olympic dream will become a reality.
“That first game will be a surreal moment,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
Still, Thomas has an inkling of what to expect at the Olympics. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Clark Donatelli represented the United States in the 1988 and the 1992 Winter Games. As captain of the 1992 team, Donatelli and his teammates barely missed earning a bronze medal, finishing fourth.
Thomas said he has spoken to Donatelli about the experience, and he advised him to soak it all in because it goes by fast.
“With ice hockey, it goes from start to finish so you’re playing every other day or so. But I told him to find time to get out there and experience the whole thing,” Donatelli said. “He’s going to have some great memories.”
Outside of hockey, Thomas said he’s looking forward to walking with the other athletes in the opening ceremony and meeting snowboarder Shaun White.
But his top focus is bringing home a gold medal for Canada and meeting the lofty expectations of an entire country. Canada’s hockey team won the gold medal in the last two Olympics (2010, 2014) with rosters filled with NHL players.
Can they do it with a squad of players not on NHL contracts?
“It’s a bit of added pressure. This is a new team,” Thomas said. “(Canada) expects big things and they expect to win. We’re expecting that as well.”
Competing in the Karjala Cup and Spengler Cup in Finland and Switzerland, respectively, helped adjust to playing on the bigger ice surface at the Olympics, Thomas said. The two tournaments also gave Thomas and his teammates a glimpse of the competition they’ll face in Pyeongchang.
“We played a couple of teams that pretty much had their Olympic teams set. They were very competitive and good playing on that big ice,” Thomas said. “We’re expecting teams to play well against us.”
Donatelli is expecting big things from Thomas as well, who, at age 25 is the youngest player on Canada’s roster. But, the Rhode Island native may have to make an exception when it comes to cheering for his player.
“I’m going to be rooting for him in every game, except when he plays the US,” Donatelli said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky