The Kontinental Hockey League’s four-week Olympic break could not have arrived sooner for Canadian defenceman Karl Stollery.
Although the 30-year-old blue-liner has enjoyed his first year in the KHL with Dinamo Riga, his team hits the break having won only twice in 10 outings in January. The Latvia-based squad is at the bottom of the Western Conference standings at 8-30-9.
But as disappointing as Dinamo Riga’s season has been, the dependable two-way defender is excited about his Olympic opportunity in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Stollery was an underdog to make the Canadian team. After four years at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, where he didn’t miss a game, the Camrose, Alta., native earned an AHL contract to finish out the 2011-12 season with the Lake Erie Monsters as well as the following year. He performed well enough to earn a two-way deal with the Colorado Avalanche for 2013-14.
But after playing in more AHL regular-season and playoff games (346) than NHL outings (23) in his stops with the Avalanche, San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils, he decided it was time to try the KHL.
Now he’s taking on the role of unofficial host of Team Canada’s nine-day training camp that began on Monday in his adopted hockey home of Riga, Latvia.
Canada will fit in two exhibition games against the Latvian national team on Sunday and Belarus on Tuesday before heading to South Korea for final preparations. The Canadians will play one more exhibition game against Sweden on Feb. 11 before their Olympic tournament opener against Switzerland on Feb. 15.
Stollery took time out for an e-mail exchange to discuss his journey and his Olympic excitement.
Tim Wharnsby: How did you decide to play for Dinamo Riga?
Karl Stollery: I wasn’t thinking about the Olympic potential at the time, but I wanted to either make the NHL full-time last season or go overseas. I played 11 games with New Jersey last year, so it was a tough decision. But after five years in the AHL with some NHL up-and-downs, I decided I wanted to try Europe.
There were a lot of unknowns for me but I wanted to play in the KHL because it’s the next-best league to the NHL. Riga gave me an offer in the spring and I knew Colton Gillies, who played there. So I asked him about it and after thinking it over it felt like the right decision to make.
TW: How did you find out you made the Canadian Olympic team?
KS: I had a game against Kazan the day before the announcement and hadn’t heard anything. But in the handshake line [Canadian forward Rob] Klinkhammer said “congrats,” so that’s when I knew.
I checked my phone after the game and there was a message from [Hockey Canada manager of operations] Bayne Pettinger. I told him the game was over so [Canadian general manager] Sean Burke called me and congratulated me. [Hockey Canada executive] Scott Salmond and [head coach] Willie Desjardins came on the phone and offered their congratulations as well.
TW: What’s it been like you to meet up against other Canadian Olympians in KHL games this season?
KS: It’s been fun playing against each other. [Defenceman] Chay Genoway took [Riga teammate] Brandon McMillan [of Richmond, B.C.] and me out for coffee in Tolyatti on a day off there. When Chay’s team was in Riga, my roommate Danny Kristo, who played with Chay in North Dakota, hung out for the day, too. I’ve had some good battles with guys on the ice, then after it’s nice just being able to talk to guys after games to catch up and see how they’re doing.
TW: How did you end up with the AHL Lake Erie Monsters after your four years at Merrimack?
KS: [Former NHLer] David Oliver was the general manager who signed me. That was the only offer I knew I had, so I signed an AHL deal for the next season and played the final nine games of that season as well.
TW: What does it mean to you to be chosen to play for the 2018 Canadian Olympic team?
KS: It’s an amazing honour and privilege to represent my country at the Olympics. It’s something I never would’ve imagined was possible. This has been a very exciting time for my family and me. I’m looking forward to being a part of a great team and competing for a gold medal together.
Having the training camp in Riga is a bonus for me, not having to go anywhere. I’m comfortable here and I’ll be able to show guys around and offer some local knowledge. It is going to be a lot of fun getting started with the guys and preparing for Korea.
TW: What can you tell your Canadian teammates about Riga after six months there?
KS: It’s a beautiful city. Very nice architecture. Lots of great restaurants. Interesting museums. Not too big, so you can walk to most places without needing to drive. Affordable. The majority of people speak English, so language is no issue. We have a nice arena, too.
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