Team Europe World Cup players frustrated with format

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Team Europe World Cup players frustrated with format
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Anze Kopitar
    Anze Kopitar
    Slovenian ice hockey player

TORONTO – One of the concerns for “Team Europe” in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is identity. So I tried to help give them one.

“Can you have a pirate flag as the logo on the World Cup European team jerseys?” I asked Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian-born star center for the Los Angeles Kings. “A skull and crossbones? Kings colors, of course. But the logo is a pirate flag.”

The roster is a potpourri of hockey nations that aren’t Sweden, Finland, Russia or the Czech Republic. They don’t have tradition. They don’t have an anthem. But as I suggested, they should have a flag. A pirate flag.

[Yahoo Sports Fantasy Hockey: Sign up and join a league today!]

“Because you’re, like, a team without a nation. You’re invading this tournament and trying to topple the establishment as this rogue element.”

“OK," said Kopitar, nodding.

“So can you make that happen?”

Said Kopitar: “Why would you ask me that? What control do I have over the jerseys?”

“Well,” I said, “we’ve been calling it Team Kopitar since it was announced. If you have any sway …”

“OK,” he said, smiling. “I’ll do my best.”

***

Truthfully, the Kings star has been over that “Team Kopitar” stuff for months.

When the 2016 World Cup of Hockey format was announced, with a “Young Stars” team and a “Team Europe” filling out the eight-team field, Kopitar became the focus as a player who wouldn’t be in the tournament were it not for this grab-bag of European NHL stars.

He would roll his eyes a bit when asked the same questions about “Team Kopitar” and the locker room dynamics between rival nations. But it was clear that, for him, getting a chance to play in the World Cup and represent Slovenia trumped the awkward inconvenience of having a hodgepodge team, like that table at the wedding with the childhood friend sitting with the work acquaintance sitting with mom’s second cousin.

“For selfish reasons now, it would be cool to be part of that,” he said back in January. “There are a lot of good players coming from Switzerland and Slovakia.”

Both of those countries could have made a case for inclusion in a World Cup tournament, if this World Cup tournament wasn’t simply a brand extension for the National Hockey League and international players were invited en masse to participate.

In Switzerland’s case, they’ve been a competitive Olympic team for some time and jumped up to win silver at the 2013 IIHF world championships. While the national team’s roster only boasts about a half-dozen established NHL players, the thought that Switzerland couldn’t be counted among the eight hockey powers internationally is insulting to Swiss players.

"I don't like it at all. Not one thing about it. It's a nations tournament. You love playing for your country,” said defenseman Mark Streit back in January.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 05: Roman Josi (R) of Switzerland and Yannic Seidenberg (L) of Germany battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship group A match between Switzerland and Germany at o2 Arena on May 5, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 05: Roman Josi (R) of Switzerland and Yannic Seidenberg (L) of Germany battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship group A match between Switzerland and Germany at o2 Arena on May 5, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Roman Josi, the Swiss defenseman for the Nashville Predators, felt that his country earned their inclusion in the tournament.

“I really feel like Swiss hockey made a good step forward in the last few years. We played some good international tournaments, did well at the Olympics too. It’s disappointing that Switzerland can’t be there as a nation,” he said. “But it’s the World Cup. You play against the best players in the world. It would be an honor to be on that team.”

The primary concern for Switzerland and Slovakia is how this all plays back home. The players talk about having been inspired by seeing their forefathers compete against the world’s best in international tournaments; they fear that by being placed on “Team Europe,” young players back home won’t feel the same sense of pride.

“I was wondering about that. How the fans are going to react to that. I think a lot of people want to have it the other way,” said Josi.

“It would be better to have Swiss hockey or Slovakian hockey to have their own teams, and send their own players.”

***

As a hockey nation, Switzerland feels like it’s on the upswing. Slovakia, meanwhile, has a different trajectory. 

“If this were 10 years ago, and the World Cup would have happened, they’d have to put Team Slovakia. We had way too many players in the NHL,” said Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings. “But our numbers are, maybe right now, about 12. We might not be able to compete with Canada or the U.S.”

That said, Slovakia has competed internationally despite those diminished numbers, and Tatar isn’t sure how fans are going to feel about what he called a “relegation” to Team Europe.

“I don’t know if they’re going to cheer for a Team Europe,” he said. “We’ve been part of hockey tournaments for a decade. Slovakia … I’m not saying we’re the best, but we’ve been a part of the Olympics and the World Championships. So the fans are disappointed. It’s the not the same.”

Defenseman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins has represented Slovakia in seven world championships and three Olympics.

“I prefer country vs. country. It’s always more excited to be playing for your own country,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be very exciting for the fans. But still, there are a few unknowns about how it’s going to be melded together.”

Like, for example, what they’re playing for. Every individual nation wants to see its flag above Canadian ice in Toronto, wants to hear its anthem echoing through an arena as they’re handed the World Cup, wants to know the fans back home understand their nation was just crowned champion.

Even the “Young Stars” players told us they have a distinct motivation: Beating the old guard, like underclassmen embarrassing the seniors in a scrimmage.

But what is “Team Europe” playing for?

[Yahoo Sports Fantasy Hockey: Sign up and join a league today!]

“It won’t be the same kind of pressure for me, playing for Team Europe with the mixed players. Playing for Team Slovakia, you don’t want to disappoint your fans,” said Tatar. “You’re playing for your teammates in your locker room. I will do my best to win the World Cup. It won’t be the same as playing for Team Slovakia, but we can have fun. If I get picked, you want to win it.

Chara said the important thing for all of “Team Europe” – whether the players are from Slovakia, Switzerland, Slovenia or other “relegated” nations – is that they understand that not having the logo on the front doesn’t mean you aren’t representing your country in Toronto next September.

“Even when you say you’re not playing for Slovakia, you actually are. It’s just that you’re playing on a team with other countries, too,” he said.

Now, if only they have a flag …

MORE FROM YAHOO HOCKEY