TORONTO -- When the NHL and NHLPA announced last January that the 2016 World Cup of Hockey format would feature a pan-European team and squad made up of the top U-23 players from Canada and the U.S. I wasn’t a fan.
As a traditionalist I prefer the nation versus nation format, and while I understand the desire to get stars players like Anze Kopitar involved on such a grand stage, this incarnation of the World Cup doesn’t have the same feel as the two previous editions of the tournament.
But one thing I learned during the NHL Players Media Tour this week in Toronto is that those players who will be eligible for the U-23 North American team are really looking forward to the opportunity to pick off hockey’s traditional powers.
Despite some eligible layers having played for their respective countries growing up, putting on a jersey that isn’t the U.S. or Canada in an international tournament won’t change their mindset.
“I don’t think it’ll be awkward,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, who has played for Team Canada at four tournaments. “It’ll be pretty exciting. I think that the young player will really embrace that role as the younger squad.”
And that’s the vibe we received from potential U-23 players. It’s fine that they won’t be able to wear the red, white and blue or the maple leaf. They’re eagerly awaiting the opportunity to make some noise with a quality team of their own.
“If Canada loses to a bunch of 23-year olds, it’s not going to look so good," said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, who has represented the U.S. 41 times. "Nobody realizes how good that bunch of 23-year olds could possibly be.”
Rielly, Trouba, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Brandon Saad, Nathan MacKinnon, Dougie Hamilton, Aaron Ekblad and Seth Jones are just a few of the names that will likely be chosen by co-Team North America general managers Stan Bowman and Peter Chiarelli. There will be enough talent in the roster and motivation to embarrass the “old “ guys.
Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes likened it to a time-honored tradition in college hockey.
“When I was in college we used to do freshman and sophomores versus juniors and seniors all the time,” said Faulk, who will be too old to be eligible for Team North America. “Safe to say those turned out to be pretty heated rivals because the younger class won all the time. They hated it. So it was kind of a little chip on their shoulder that they want to go out and prove themselves that they can do it. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be a good team.”
Faulk added that low expectations for Team North America will be a big motivating factor as they wear the underdog label.
“They don’t have anything to lose,” said Faulk. “They’re not coming in expected to win.”
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