Matthews, Gaudreau missing shot to showcase Team USA’s golden era

Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews says he's "pretty bummed" about the league's decision not to go forward with the World Cup of Hockey, meanwhile Mike Babcock says he has enough other problems to worry about.

TORONTO — This was supposed to be the new dawn of American hockey. The era in which Team USA, ripe with young, dynamic talent, climbed up and challenged for the throne.

After decades of operating in the shadow of their northern neighbours and that red-and-white behemoth, the United States was set for a renaissance on the backs of the Gaudreaus and the Eichels, on that of Auston Matthews and the number of other U.S.-born stars dominating from the blue line and in the cage.

The only problem: So far, the squad has yet to get an opportunity to do any damage together.

Between the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which siphoned a number of talented Americans off to an under-23 ‘Team North America’ roster, and the NHL’s decision not to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games, stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Matthews have yet to suit up together on the biggest international stage.

That run looks set to continue following the recent news of the NHL and NHLPA falling short in their efforts to bring the World Cup back in 2020. It appears 2022 is likely the next best bet — that three-year delay only serving as the full sentence if the NHL decides to return to the Olympics — though a 2021 option appears to be in the early stages of discussion as well.

Regardless, it seems an opportunity missed for the red, white and blue, without a doubt, given the immense talent waiting to come over the boards.

“Obviously Canada has all those great players, but the U.S. stacks up, man to man,” says Craig Conroy, who suited up for Team USA at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 2006 Olympic Games. “It’s pretty even back and forth, which is exciting for USA Hockey.”

For the time being, Conroy’s premier American lineup remains the one that claimed the ’96 World Cup — with legends like Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Brett Hull leading the charge — but the Potsdam, N.Y. native says Team USA’s current crop can, at the very least, challenge for that top spot.

“I’d have to see how they perform on the world stage together as a group, and what kind of success they had,” he says. “But, with that said, they’re right there. I mean, there are going to be Hall of Famers coming out of here, and guys that have done things for teams that are going to set records. They’re just elite, high-end, skilled players.

“Hopefully they get in some competitions so we can see how they really do fare against the best of the best in the world.”

A cursory glance at the game-changing American talent dropped onto that 2016 Team North America roster is evidence enough of this potential: Matthews, Gaudreau, Eichel and Dylan Larkin among those up front, Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere and Jacob Trouba on the back end, with John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck behind them.

Then count the U.S.-born stars who’ve since risen up among the league’s best — forwards Brock Boeser, Matthew Tkachuk, Kyle Connor and Clayton Keller, along with blueliner Zach Werenski — and add in the veteran stars who dotted the good-but-not-great American rosters of the past two tournaments: Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski and John Carlson among them.

For Conroy’s money, there’s a roster in there that could go the distance.

“I would feel comfortable saying they could win any game,” he says. “…With all those players, I don’t think I’d ever feel like we don’t have a chance. I believe we could beat anybody on any given night.”

Every World Cup nation surely suffers from not getting the chance to take the ice in 2020, as hoped — Canada would no doubt relish the chance to see Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby don the same sweater — but there’s an argument to be made that Team USA may be the most hard done by, once again made to wait while their golden generation routinely showcases their potential dominance.

It’s safe to say those young American standouts are champing at the bit to get back to that best-on-best environment, too.

“I can’t mind-read, but I know those guys as competitors,” says Danton Cole, who coached the majority of the finest young, U.S.-born talents currently in the big leagues — Eichel and Matthews included — during his time behind the bench for the U.S. National Team Development Program from 2010–17.

“And I know that every time they’re on the ice — I don’t care if they’re in a summer skate or it’s an NHL game or it’s the World Cup or the Olympics — they’re going out there to prove something and to win.”

“You talk to players and they want to play, you know. They want to do it,” says Conroy. “I think they’re all hoping that we can come to some kind of agreement and move it forward.”

Gaudreau will be 28 years old by the time the 2022 Olympic Games roll around. Matthews will be 24 and Eichel, 25. That’s a decent chunk of this American superstar core’s prime years in which the country’s best players won’t get a chance to suit up together internationally. Especially considering the ages in which the previous generations’ best were afforded the chance to make their mark on the international stage, as pointed out by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston recently:
 

• Wayne Gretzky was 20 when he led the 1981 Canada Cup in scoring.
 
• Mario Lemieux was 21 when he scored one of international hockey’s most famous goals to capture the 1987 Canada Cup.
 
• Ovechkin was 20 when he starred for the Russian team at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
 
• Crosby was 22 when he sent the country into celebration with the Golden Goal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

There’s something to be said, too, for the impact such an experience can have in these players’ efforts to build a legacy. The chance to stake their claim on international hockey history, to have their moment under the bright lights against the best of the best, isn’t an insignficant one.

“Definitely, it takes you from one kind of class and even raises that to another whole level, in all of the U.S.,” says Conroy, who knows one of these American standouts well given his role as the Flames’ assistant GM. “Johnny’s already a star, and everybody knows him up here, but it puts him on the world stage and everybody can really appreciate how good these players really are.”

Don’t sleep on the fact that Canada misses out too, given the NHL affiliations of a number of these stars. League success is crucial, but international-level acclaim goes far in the way of making careers and spurring further greatness. Delaying, once again, Team USA’s core from participating in this leaves Gaudreau’s Flames, Matthews’ Leafs, Boeser’s Canucks, and Hellebuyck’s Jets without the chance to see their club stars potentially make that historic transition that the Canadian legends above were able to in their early years.

And it leaves hockey fans at large without the opportunity to see the sport’s immense progress on display as the young elite showcase their new-school talent.

“You look at Canada and Russia, Finland, Sweden, the U.S. — I think you’d have a hard time saying, ‘This team’s the favourite.’ I think you’d look at it and say, ‘Any one of these teams could win,’” says Cole. “…I think there’s a legitimate chance that five or six countries, if you threw all the best together, could do something great, and that’s what you want.

“That’s what people want — they want the game to be good not just in a couple countries, but good worldwide. It would be exciting to see.”

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