The Kids Are Alright

Team North America’s Performance At The World Cup A Sign That The Future Is Now

The Air Canada Centre was rocking to the rafters as Team North America and Team Sweden headed for overtime. With so much open ice in the 3-on-3 tiebreaking format, the sellout crowd was excited to see some edge-of-your-seat bonus hockey.

As Auston Mathews hit the ice in the extra session the crowd began to chant his name, a sign of things to come for the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie and the rabid fans who have been waiting for a savior to lift them from their 48-year state of depression.

“It was awesome,” said Matthews after his Toronto debut. “It’s pretty exciting, obviously a lot of tension in that overtime period, so you kind of try to block it out, but it’s definitely pretty fun.”

Even as the youngest player in the tournament, the 19-year-old whiz kid from Scottsdale, Ariz., lived up to the hype as he gave long-suffering Maple Leaf fans and the rest of the hockey world a glimpse of what the future holds.

“He hasn’t played his first game but he’s an NHL player. I know that. Everybody here knows that. He’s that good,” said Team North America head coach Todd McLellan.

The same could be said for all the young guns on Team North America, a collection of the best and brightest young talent from the United States and Canada that quickly became the darlings of the tournament.

Coming into Toronto, it was anybody’s guess how personalities and playing styles would mesh, especially after spending most of their young hockey lives battling against one another. But the end result was a team that played an up-tempo style while not backing down when more experienced teams tried to push the kids around.

“It was pretty remarkable being able to come together that quickly. We’re all pretty similar in age and even though we came from different countries we are all hockey players,” said Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel.

“I thought that we could be dangerous. I thought that we could have fun playing as a team. But I didn’t think we’d have as big an impact on the hockey world as we did.”

And they proved it against the best international competition. They made Finland look flat-footed in the opener, came within a post in the final seconds from taking down Russia, and edged Sweden in an overtime thriller. Their run-and-gun style caught opponents off guard as the young guns took early leads in all three contests, with Matthews providing the offensive juice.

“A lot of guys have played in international competitions before so you are familiar with the way other countries play. With us it’s a mixture between the U.S and Canadians, and we’re young at the same time, so it’s all new for them,” said Brandon Saad, the elder statesman on the team.

“I don’t know if they underestimated us or they’re trying to get a feel for the game, but we would go out and surprise them.”

Early skepticism quickly gave way to acceptance. Tickets to see the young guns were in heavy demand on the secondary market, and team merchandise flew off the shelves at arena kiosks and at shops around the city.

The speed and skill of Team North America players like Jack Eichel, far left, and Johnny Gaudreau, left, kept opponents on their heels during all three games at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.The speed and skill of Team North America players like Jack Eichel, far left, and Johnny Gaudreau, left, kept opponents on their heels during all three games at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

“We were definitely received pretty well as a group and I think that it meant a lot to all the guys,” Eichel said. “We definitely enjoyed the crowds and the atmosphere that we played in front of and the overall environment.”

By the time their hopes were dashed by a Team Russia victory over Finland, the biggest question mark coming into the tournament was quickly drawing comparisons to the dynastic Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980s by the time.

“That’s probably a good comparison,” said McLellan, the head coach of the current version of the Oilers.

“That generation is so long gone; the league is different now. You know, it’s hard to get a collection of Messiers, Kurris and that many offensive type players and keep them in one spot in today’s game. We’re lucky to have it.”

While things did not go according to plan for Team USA at the World Cup, with the performance of young stars like Matthews, Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Shayne Gostisbehere, the future looks bright for American hockey.

“You could argue that some of the guys on that team would have made our team or been in consideration to be on this team,” said Team USA forward Patrick Kane.

“USA Hockey is in a good place; I think the future is bright. Once we get by this I think there’ll be a lot of excitement and definitely some expectations to do better in the Olympics.”

 

That blend of veterans and talented youngsters leaves the U.S brain trust with some interesting decisions if and when NHL players do suit up for their respective countries in an Olympic competition.

“We have some talented guys on our team and there’s still some great guys on that team as well,” said Gostisbehere, who tied for the tournament lead in scoring among defensemen. “There definitely is a bright future.”

If the NHL’s plans to stage another World Cup in three or four years holds form, Matthews, Eichel and McDavid could still be skating under the Team North America banner, which may be bad news for opposing countries but great news for fans who like that wide-open, fire wagon brand of hockey.

“If I get a vote, I’d like to do it again,” McLellan said. “We’ve proven that this young generation can play with the older players. We’ve been very entertaining. I think if you surveyed 99 out of 100 fans, they’d probably say put them in again, so those are all real positive things.”

Issue: 
2016-11

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