Team North America gone but won’t be soon forgotten

Team Russia blanked Team Finland to win 3-0 and book a semi-final date with Canada, and eliminate Team North America from the tournament.

TORONTO — It is over for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey.

Perhaps forever, perhaps only for a quadrennial.

But this much we are certain about: no team ever impacted the hockey world in three games the way these guys did.

“It was must-watch hockey,” said Ken Hitchcock, over the phone from St. Louis. “Every time you watched them, all you could think of was the Edmonton Oilers of the ‘80s.”

Those Oilers were the highest scoring team in the history of the National Hockey League, to the tune of 400-plus goals per season. If Glen Sather’s Oilers weren’t the most exciting team to ever play the game of hockey, they were one of the candidates.

That any team in 2016 even evokes that comparison in casual conversation is like finding hockey gold, on an NHL landscape littered with 3-2 games and tired, grind-it-out hockey. Even opponents were wowed.

“The first game (a 4-1 win over Finland) was the best hockey I’ve seen in a long time,” marvelled Swedish captain Henrik Sedin. “I watch a lot of hockey games. A lot of the time, as you know, it’s a grind. It’s an NHL grind, and it might not be the best hockey.

“But I actually sat down as a fan, and really enjoyed watching them play.”

So, the question begs: How do we preserve the memory of Team North America, even if the franchise may never play another game?

Can some vestige of the wide-open, hair-raising style of hockey that averaged 46 shots on net per game here in some way be replicated once the NHL season begins?

Is there a legacy here? Or, like Gretzky’s Oilers, is it gone forever?

“Everyone enjoys playing this hockey,” said Winnipeg defenceman Jacob Trouba. “I don’t know how easy it would be to play this hockey for 100 games, but it’s definitely fun to play and to see.

“As much as we could bring over to the NHL season, we’d like to.”

It’s the same as asking the question, why can’t the Harlem Globetrotters play and win in the NBA? All we know for sure is, they don’t.

An NHL coach is paid to win, and he gets fired if he loses too many. So he has to believe that opening up his game plan would lead to success, and that he has enough high-pedigree players to pull it off.

Even if he does, through an 82-game season with back-to-back games, long flights and God-awful ice, could they execute that game well enough often enough to win more than their share of games?

“It’s spectacular to watch,” said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. “(But) you’re not getting that much skill on one NHL team. You’d love to have it. How do we get it?”

Then there are the coaches — who we believe are eternally to blame for dulling down the game — who would find a way to ruin Team North America.

“The NHL is about taking away time and space,” Babcock said. “These kids … could they do it night in and night out when you’re breaking them down (on film)? I doubt it.”

Hitchcock sees North America’s assets differently.

“What people aren’t talking about is their hockey sense,” said the Blues coach who watched every minute of Team North America. “The combination of speed, skill, and most important: hockey sense. How many smart plays they make under pressure. Where most people would bang it off the boards or fire it off the glass, these guys are still trying to make a play.”

Extrapolate that to an NHL roster. Or more aptly, the bottom half of an NHL roster.

Today’s third- and fourth-liners are far better skaters than before, as are the average bottom-three defencemen. But is their hockey IQ high enough to make the right decisions at top speed — in a system that both rewards smart, fast plays, but punishes mistakes?

We’ll credit Todd McLellan and his North America coaching staff for not getting in the way of this fabulously exciting young roster. But he’ll tell you that he can’t just drop this game plan down in Edmonton and have his Oilers play the same way.

“We are fast and skilled, but we’re fast and skilled in our own range,” said McLellan of his Oilers. “(This) coaching staff didn’t get together … and re-invent hockey, we just had some different tools to use. We were playing with house money, so the pressure wasn’t really there. We didn’t play safe or passive, except for seven minutes (versus Russia) and it cost us four goals and possibly a chance at the final.

“We’ll try and maintain this type of hockey (in Edmonton), but you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt. And there are so many factors that go into it. Talent. Age. Contracts. Salary caps. Market. Players have free agency rights…”

So the coach of the most exciting hockey team we have witnessed in some 30 years brings us to this forlorn conclusion:

“It’s almost impossible,” said McLellan, “to do on a yearly basis for 82-games what we’ve done here in a short-term tournament.”

R.I.P. Team North America.

We hardly knew ye.

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