In the middle of a difficult NHL season, Martin Erat received some good news Tuesday when he was named as an injury replacement to the Czech Republic Olympic hockey team.
Erat, 32, will take the place of St. Louis forward Vladimir Sobotka (broken kneecap). It will be Erat’s third trip to the Olympics, having participated in both Vancouver in 2010 and Turin in 2006.
“It’s always nice to play for national team especially in as big a tournament as Olympics are,” said Erat, who has no goals but 21 assists in 48 games this season. “It’s going to be nice to change scenarios for a while and hope we get something done there.”
Erat’s selection is somewhat of a surprise given the available players with better offensive numbers, including Calgary’s Jiri Hudler (42 points, including 14 goals) and Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata (37 points, including 13 goals).
“We’ve counted with Vladimir Sobotka as a top two-way forward; he is extraordinary on defense,” Czech Republic coach Alois Hadamczik said via NHL.com “After he got injured, we had to find similar kind of a player and Martin Erat is best in defense among all candidates.”
But Erat may miss something significant back in the United States. His wife, Vera, is due to give birth to their second child on Feb. 25. That’s two days after the gold medal game in Sochi, and of course there’s no way to predict if their daughter might arrive early.
As much as Erat wants to be with his family, he didn’t consider passing on what will likely be his last chance to play in the Olympics.
“I hope everything’s going to go as was planned….I just have to hope my wife is going to be as calm as it gets and hopefully we’ll get to the baby after,” Erat said. “You can look at it as you’re selfish or whatever. It’s maybe my last tournament that I can play in the big scenarios like this. It’s a huge tournament. Maybe in two months, four months I would be disgusted with myself because I didn’t go. I’m going to be spending with my daughter every single day after that. I hope everybody understands that for me the Olympics are something special.”
In addition to representing his country, the Olympics offer a chance for Erat to find more success on the ice than he’s had in Washington. This is the worst offensive season of Erat’s career considering he has already surpassed the single-season record for most assists recorded without a goal – Dan Bourbonnais had 16 assists for the Hartford Whalers back in 1983-84 but no goals.
But even amid his scoring struggles, this campaign is more defined by the fact that the 12-year NHL veteran publicly demanded that the Capitals trade him back on Nov. 25. More than two months later, Erat remains in Washington, given the limited market for a forward struggling to produce offensively who has one year remaining on his contract and has requested to be traded twice in less than a year.
Coach Adam Oates acknowledged on Tuesday that playing for a team that he’s wanted to leave for so long now had an impact on Erat’s performance.
“His job is to be professional about it but in saying that it’s hard every day mentally. I think it affected him at times. I know I talked to his agent about two weeks ago and talked to him about in terms of no matter what happens, he’s got to try and be as emotionally involved in every game that you can,” Oates said. “As good a player as you are, no matter how good you are as a player you still got to – you can’t go through the motions. You think you show up, you work hard you still got to have some emotion into the game to be successful. I think in the last 10 days or so, especially, his game has picked up and because of that he got a couple more minutes and then it’s funny how that trickles through.”
During that recent stretch injuries have accumulated for Washington, resulting in greater ice time and special teams opportunities for Erat. Since Mikhail Grabovski was injured on Jan. 24 in New Jersey, the Capitals have had to shuffle their forward lines several times and Erat has skated more than 20 minutes twice in the five games since then. That’s significantly more than the fourth-line minutes he saw at the beginning of the year.
Whether Erat ever scores another goal as a Capital – he has just one since arriving on a deadline day trade from Nashville on April 3, 2013 – or how long he stays with the team remains to be seen. But for two weeks he’ll have the opportunity to show what he can do on a larger ice surface, away from the subplots in Washington.