COLUMBUS, OHIO – “Rivalry. Intensity. Revenge.”
We have just said the phrase “Team Canada” to Brandon Dubinsky and asked him what feelings pop to mind.
Consider that this response comes from a Team USA forward who neither played in Vancouver nor Sochi, a guy from Alaska (the most Canadian state?), and you get a sense of where Team USA’s head is at entering its first 2016 World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game Friday night in Ohio.
“I wasn’t in the Olympics, but being a fan, being a U.S. guy, it makes us want to go after them and win one of these tournaments,” says Dubinsky, a member of the nastiest, grittiest, Tortorellist bottom six in the tournament.
“Listen. They’re the favourites. They’re the team you have to go through to win this thing. We’re certainly paying a little extra attention to them.”
Columbus is a college football town, no doubt. But we might not have to wait till Saturday to see someone get bucked in the eye. (Hey-oh!)
By every measure—history, hardware, scoring statistics, salary, Vegas odds, home ice, pool alignment—Canada is positioned as the World Cup favourite.
Gold goes through Mike Babcock’s bunch. So Team USA’s brain trust, helmed by GM Dean Lombardi, looked past skill guys like Tyler Johnson, Kyle Okposo, Phil Kessel and Kevin Shattenkirk and constructed a roster that will attempt to do so, literally.
The club distributes a daily agenda to its players at camp. One of them this week included a fun “quote of the day” from Clint Eastwood: “I have a very strict gun control policy: If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it.”
Tortorella has been vehement all week that his charges will not be counterpunching. He says he has zero interest in playing matchup chess with Babcock in order to, say, have Kesler shadow Jonathan Toews or Dubinksy fog up the inside of Sidney Crosby’s visor. The U.S. will skate north-south. Straight ahead. It will be in your teeth, trying to dictate pace.
“These guys, they want to play. It’s such a short tournament, you want to make your presence felt right away as far as how you’re going to go about your business. There won’t be any problem with either team as far as intensity [Friday],” Tortorella says. He’ll mix lines and pairings based on score and situation, sure.
“But as far as getting involved in a Kess-Toews, matchup? I’m not doing it.”
Does Dubinsky want a crack at Crosby?
“I don’t really care that much,” he says. “I know what my role is. Whoever I line up across I’m going to play him hard, play him fair and do whatever I can to make Team USA successful.
“It’s not going to be your typical exhibition game, that’s for sure.”
Also this: The Stanley Cup will be in the building, courtesy of the Tortorella Family Foundation.
This weekend’s back-to-back U.S.-Canada pre-tournament tilts—obviously orchestrated to snatch fans’ imagination from the pennant race and the NFL opening—mean squat in terms of standings but much in terms of emotional tone setting and finding which mistakes need to be corrected.
“I don’t need to think about Sochi to hate Canada. It’s just been that way growing up. Vice versa. They know they have a target on their back after winning Sochi and same for Vancouver,” Max Pacioretty tells us.
“It will start off controlled, and as our competitive nature goes, I think it will get very intense. It will turn into a faster game than people think. When you’re in an environment like that, you lose track of how important the game is [standings-wise] because whenever you line up against Canada, you can’t control it. It’ll be an intense rivalry. Faster than people think.”
Speed is essential here. To a man, the Americans, groomed on small ice, believe the NHL surface plays into their strengths.
“Just the passion of Canada with the World Cup—to have that type of atmosphere in a small building where you can’t run and hide. That certainly came into our thinking in how we want to play and some of the personnel we brought in to play,” Tortorella says.
Camp Torts has been working diligently on quick, hard forechecks and fast breakouts out of the defensive zone. You can trace the drills and the roster selections to Sochi, to Vancouver, or all the way to the 1996 World Cup, where Team USA last defeated Canada for best-on-best gold.
USA Hockey mailed each current player a copy of that opus on a USB.
“Just an all-out war as far as their effort level and their compete level,” U.S. defenceman Ryan McDonagh says of the ’96 gold medal game. That epic saw the U.S. rally from a 2-1 deficit in the third period by potting four goals in the game’s final 3:18. It was also chockfull of penalties and scoring chances. “Maybe that could be foreshadowing for what we see in this tournament.”
McDonagh is one of a few members of the U.S. leadership group that met with the coaching staff and management over the course of the 2015-16 season to pick apart their 1-0 loss to Canada in 2014, a semifinal defeat he tells us still feels fresh.
So, besides Carey Price being awesome, what went wrong?
“They defended really well. We didn’t get opportunities to use our speed and our forecheck. It was one-and-done in their zone a lot, while they spent a lot of time in our zone. We spent too much time defending. So that’s the emphasis here. You see us working on D zone,” McDonagh says.
“We want to exit the zone as quick as possible, whether that’s a clean get-out, connecting the dots, or just getting the puck to an area and using our speed up front.”
Most Americans will cushion their World Cup comments by saying the right thing, about how they need to respect all seven teams, but this spirit of this room is unequivocally this: Eliminate Canada.
“It’s probably the biggest rivalry in hockey, U.S.–Canada. You put two superstar teams together and it’s almost like an all-star game, except with a better pace. More physical. More on the line,” Patrick Kane says.
“The entertainment value is going to be through the roof. We’ll try to put on a good show.”
Drop the puck already.