Every game, every shift this season amounts to an Olympic tryout for Mallards forward Juris Stals.
The 27-year-old from Riga, Latvia, is on a short list of candidates to skate for his country in 2010 Winter Olympics come February in Vancouver, B.C.
Stals, who rates among the elite players in a nation of 2.6 million people, has between now and the end of December to suitably impress the Latvian Hockey Federation and coach Olegs Znaroks.
"It's up to the coach," said Stals, who was among a list of 40-plus players, including four current NHLers, on an initial list of Latvian candidates released in August. "I haven't heard anything yet."
The veteran right winger is a little reluctant to talk about his status, lest he jinx his chances. Make no mistake, though, he is daring to dream.
"That, I think, is every hockey player's dream, to participate for a national team," he said. "To be at the Olympic games is every athlete's dream."
Mallards coach Frank Anzalone said having an Olympian on his roster would be a great thing for the franchise, but said he has yet to be contacted for an evaluation. He suspects there have been and will be Latvian scouts in the stands over the coming weeks.
"It's great that he is a candidate," Anzalone said, "but he is going to have to get going, producing, so that they watch him closer than others. There is competition for spots."
An early back injury and a young Mallards center corps initially stalled Stals in his first International Hockey League season, but Anzalone has never seen a lack of effort and lately is seeing signs of the world-class forward he expected when Stals was signed in September.
Stals is rounding into the player he was expected to be when Anzalone discovered his availability ahead of training camp, scoring six of his eight points and two of his three goals in the Mallards' past six starts. That doesn't include the winning goal in a shootout win a week ago.
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"Juris has played very, very hard and he has never let up a shift," Anzalone said. "Sure, the injury set him back. He got a little rusty. But he is in high gear now."
Stals is one of an estimated 4,300 hockey players in his tiny Baltic nation, which in his youth featured just a pair of rinks - or, considering the bubble roof blew off one of those, more like a rink and a half, Stals joked.
High demand for ice time meant early-morning practice sessions as a child, but, even though his father was a basketball player, the young athlete decided by age 10 that hockey was his sport.
Now, he has a chance to represent his country on the world's biggest athletic stage. He tries not to overthink the opportunity.
"I kind of don't like talking about all those things," he said. "My mind and my heart are here with the Quad-City Mallards. I have to play well and if it will happen, it will happen."