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Rielly says Team North America could shock World Cup opponents

TORONTO – A smile comes across Morgan Rielly’s face when you ask him if it’s reasonable for Team North America to approach the upcoming World Cup with the same mindset Team Canada typically brings to an international tournament.

You know the one: Gold or bust.

It’s the kind of question players on the 23-and-under side have already heard a lot of. And Rielly clearly hopes this team quickly sheds the “curiosity” label once the tournament gets going.

“I don’t expect that we’re going to be different than Team Canada, Team USA, the Russians,” he said this week after a skate at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice rink. “We’re just another team in this tournament. … We’re not looking for any excuses because we think that we have a team that can go in there and upset some teams. We’re looking forward to the challenge.

“We’re a young group with lots of talent that’s highly motivated. I think we’re going to go in there and we’re going to try to shock some people. We’re not expecting any kind of special treatment.”

There may be some unknowns, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody if this group of players carries a collective chip on their shoulders. Much like Team Europe, they are part of an experiment that could very well be a one-off for the event. And they aren’t being discussed as a serious contender in many corners.

The notion that you’ll have players from two different countries making up one team – with some potentially facing their own national side in an elimination game – is too difficult for some observers to wrap their heads around.

But the players have had a significant amount of time to get comfortable with the concept, and it’s clear as they head to training camp in Montreal this weekend that they’re ready to embrace the challenge it presents.

“We’re not going there just to be a part of the World Cup,” said Rielly. “We’re going in there to try to win it. We’re going to have our training camp and then we’re going to get dialled in and when we come back to Toronto for the tournament we’re going to be in business mode.”

There’s reason to believe they can surprise.

A forward group that includes Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Drouin, Mark Scheifele, Nathan MacKinnon, Brandon Saad, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jack Eichel and others is certainly worthy of this level of competition. And they shouldn’t be out-classed too much defensively with Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, Shane Gostisbehere, Colton Parayko and Rielly.

Even the goaltending – once thought to be the team’s Achilles’ heel – looks pretty good with Stanley Cup-winner Matt Murray challenging John Gibson for the No. 1 role.

At age 22, Rielly is one of the “veterans” on coach Todd McLellan’s team. He has three NHL seasons under his belt and won a gold medal with Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May.

The combination of that tournament plus the early World Cup start made it a shorter summer than usual for Rielly.

“I only took a couple days off and then I got back in the gym,” he said. “I mean usually you might take a couple weeks off. It’s just a matter of bumping things up a bit and working that much harder.”

Team North America is in a group with Russia, Finland and Sweden at the World Cup. It will face each of those countries during the preliminary round, with the top two teams advancing directly to the semifinals.

Oddsmakers have installed them as a 16-to-1 longshot to win the tournament, but Rielly is naturally more bullish on their chances.

Even before gathering together in person for the first time, he’s confident that the group is ready. The preparation is already well underway.

“We’ve had our conference calls, we got in touch with the coaches, we got emails,” said Rielly. “I mean all the guys know what kind of style we’re going to play. Moreso than that, we realize how high the competition’s going to be and the importance of this tournament.

“Not much has to be said when you put this many guys together that all want to win.”