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Team North America's young guns aiming for World Cup upset

At first the butt of kiddie jokes, these under-23 NHL stars form a talent-laden roster that expects to give the veteran squads a battle in hockey's revived tournament.

By Jan. 2015, the NHL and its players’ association had envisioned an eight-team format for their resurrected World Cup of Hockey, but only six nations were judged strong enough to field individual teams. So before agreeing to finish the field with two continental, all-star clubs — Team Europe, featuring the remaining unrepresented countries, and an under-23 squad of U.S. and Canadian natives — the league and the NHLPA sought feedback.​

“They were hesitant initially, the young players,” says Mathieu Schneider, an NHLPA official. “Then we showed them what the roster could look like. Even they were surprised. They really started to get excited, almost immediately. After the first couple of conversations, we started leading with that.”

Public opinion has seemingly traced parallel lines. At first, discussions about Team North America’s chances in this month’s best-on-best field were dwarfed by jokes about gimmickry and jejunity. When Columbus Blue Jackets forward Brandon Saadfilmed a promo ad for ESPN, for instance, his on-set comedian counterpart spent takes riffing about early bedtimes clashing with puck drops, or whether their parents would even let the young players out of the house. (“He did a really good job,” Saad says. “All fun and games.”)

Indeed, merging an entire continent on the international stage had never been done before, let alone restricting the choices based on age. Questions naturally followed. What anthem will they play? Which flag will they raise? How will young players feel competing against elder countrymen?

“It’s unusual,” Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (left, in photo above) admits. “People are still getting used to it.”

Now, as the eight World Cup teams prepare to assemble and open training camp around the world next week, it’s time to shake aside the oddities and face reality: When the NHL-sanctioned event, alive for the first time in 12 years, begins Sept. 17 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the so-called Young Guns should be considered true contenders. The lack of expectations just makes them more dangerous.

“I believe there’s some true pressure on some teams to win this,” coach Todd McLellan says. “I think we have pressure on us to upset… We’re the biggest wild card out of anybody.”

First World Cup tournament was game changer for USA hockey

Talent unquestionably exists in abundance. Team NA, as its black-and-red jerseys will read, boasts more former top-10 selections (14) and No. 1 overall picks (5) than any World Cup club. Center Connor McDavid (1.07) of the Oilers (right, in photo above) and winger Johnny Gaudreau (0.99) of the Calgary Flames ranked fifth and 15th, respectively, in points per game last season. Forward Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets led the league in scoring after Feb. 16. Forwards Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings and Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lightning have won the past two Fastest Skater competitions at the NHL All-Star game. Even the most inexperienced member — No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who turns 19 years old the same day that round-robin play starts — was arguably the United States’ best player at this May’s world championships.

“An outrageous amount of skill,” Scheifele says, and a surprisingly decorated group too: Projected starting goalie Matt Murray (2016, Pittsburgh) and Saad (2013 and 2015, Chicago) have both lifted the Stanley Cup. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers and forward Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche are former rookies of the year. Gaudreau and forward Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres won Hobey Baker Awards as the NCAA’s top player. “The NHL’s future, the next big thing, we’ve got a lot of those on the team,” New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller says. “It’s not a gimmick.” To wit, Miller once merely considered himself “an outside chance” to make the team, figuring “there were too many young superstars to go around.”

Given the packed pre-tournament docket — six practices and three exhibitions over 10 days, starting Sept. 4 — it is fair to wonder how this group will gel on the fly. Save for the nine different nationalities that form Team Europe, the bulk of other squads have competed in best-on-best tournaments together before; Team Canada, the odds-on favorite, returns more than half its gold medal winners from the Sochi Olympics. And while every other 23-man World Cup roster averages at least 244 career NHL games and 25 playoff games, North America sits at 154 and 11, respectively.

“Most of us haven’t had a long playoff run or anything like that,” Scheifele says. “It’s only a select few guys that have gone through certain things. Then you look at Canada, a lot of those guys have won gold medals, Stanley Cups — they’ve done it all. The biggest thing for us is, we just have to not be intimidated, not worry about that stuff. If we play our game, we’ll be fine.”

McLellan and his assistants, meanwhile, must meld 11 Canadians and 14 U.S. natives in short order. Aside from a conference call held last month to discuss travel logistics and on-ice plans, Team North America’s first time together will come at training camp in Montreal. Dinners have been planned too, but only three days separate them from meeting Team Europe in Quebec City on Sept 8.

“The veterans on [other] teams have had to check their egos at the door, they’ve had to accept diminished or smaller roles,” McLellan says. “Some of our players have done it at world juniors, but never at this type of level. Never at the Olympics, never at the World Cup, or anything like that.

“Let’s face it: When the power play comes, there’s going to be 20 guys standing up and putting their legs over the boards. It doesn’t work that way.”

Still, the age limit should help Team North America off the ice — “I think we’ll have more in common than most other teams, just because a lot of our experiences have been the same,” Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly says— and on it.

“Where we may have an edge is those young legs tend to be more energized earlier in the year,” McLellan says. They are perfectly capable of keeping pace in their round-robin group with Finland, Russia, and Sweden. "Maybe for some of the older players it takes a little longer." 

With phases like "dark horse" being amply thrownaround, it seems public intrigue has finally matched the internal excitement that existed ever since the NHLPA pitched the potential roster. When asked what he was most looking forward to in Toronto, Miller replied, “Probably getting to play with players I watch on the highlight films, all day long, every day.” When asked to stump for Team North America’s chances, Rielly said, “We want to surprise everybody. We want to go in there and teach the more experienced, older guys a thing or two.”

And when Saad measures how buzz has increased from his perspective, he describes it like this: “At first, it was joking about the young guys. Now you see, with the team drawn up and how much talent there is, you definitely don’t want to take us lightly. I don’t think we’ll be pushovers, that’s for sure.”

So watch out, world. The kids are all fight.