Why Team North America is a World Cup staple, not a gimmick

The Hockey Central panel explains how a good showing by Team North America could greatly affect future World Cup of Hockey tournaments.

They have been labelled a gimmick by some, while others would say that Team North America personifies the cash grab that is this World Cup of Hockey.

To some, a 7-1 win by Canada over Italy or Austria in the Olympic Games is noble, but watching the future of hockey band together in September to take a run at the big boys is contrived.

Or this: the International Olympic Committee makes huge bucks off the National Hockey League’s product and everything is kosher. But when the NHL and NHLPA opt to go it by themselves, they’re a bunch of greedy dogs.

“There’s always going to be something (negative said) about everything,” said Mark Scheifele, the sharp, well-spoken and probable future captain of the Winnipeg Jets. “Hopefully we are the start of something. That’s what is on everyone’s minds. They want to be something that becomes a staple of this tournament.”

A staple, not a gimmick. That’s an interesting concept.

Watch this pedigree of player on a practice ice for three consecutive days, and you would have a hard time applying a negative label to a team comprised of every fan base’s most exciting young superstar.

In a league where perhaps half of the teams have legitimate No. 1 defencemen on their rosters, Aaron Ekblad and Shayne Gostisbehere are perhaps the next Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty on the rise.

How will this group fare against the big boys from around the world? The beauty is, where I could tell you how Slovakia, Germany, Slovakia or Latvia would do in this tournament, none of us have a clue what kind of damage Team North America can manage.

“It adds to the tournament,” said St. Louis Blues defenceman Colton Parayko, who will need a strong showing in his pre-tournament games to earn a spot in the starting six for head coach Todd McLellan. “So many people want to watch us, are talking about us. They’re excited to see how we do. And we’ll all grow up in the league together now. That’s the fun part.”

The hockey world, however, is inhabited by old men. And old men don’t like change.

So suddenly we find fault in a tournament that doesn’t include a few European national teams, because we aren’t helping to grow the game there. Well, how about a tournament that will sport a handful of Danes, Norwegians, a Slovenian (Anze Kopitar), a Frenchman (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), and Italy-born Luca Sbisa on team Europe?

Did any other incarnations of this best-on-best ever give kids in all of those countries someone to cheer for? Someone’s uniform to buy?

The Olympics, you say? Folks, if you owned an NHL team and were asked to interrupt your season, risk your players’ health, then beg for the right to use some video from the tournament and watch the International Olympic Committee cash all the checks, you wouldn’t want to be part of the Olympic family either.

If this tournament works, I would predict the NHL and NHLPA will refine it in concert with walking away from Olympic participation.

The ultimate dream is a World Cup that rivals soccer, with countries playing their way into the tournament, likely replacing Team Europe and North America with whichever countries can stake claims as the world’s No. 7 and 8 participants.

Three weeks from now, however, that idea could be out the window.

“There are a lot of questions that no one knows the answers to,” said Winnipeg’s American-born defenceman Jacob Trouba. “It’s pretty cool to be the first age group to do this. It might never be done again, you never know.”

If this team makes a big enough splash — if it can get past two of Sweden, Finland and Russia to make a semi-final — the road map for best-on-best hockey could be forever altered. But if they flop or are overmatched by deeper, more experienced teams, that bright orange crest might as well be a sunset.

“I told the players,” said McLellan, “the world’s eyes will be on us. It may never happen again. We don’t know where it’s going to go. This jersey could be a one-time thing.

“We do know there is going to be another Swedish jersey, another Canadian jersey, another U.S. jersey, but this is a pretty unique thing. We’re pioneers, and we want to pave a pretty good road in case it does happen again. The world’s eyes are on us.”

Four years from now, both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will still be eligible for this Under-24 team — when both could conceivably be the captain of their national men’s team by age 23.

Further intrigue, indeed.

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