At the start of the World Cup of Hockey, it was hard to get a read on what Team North America would be all about. How would a team made up of 23-and-under talent from Canada and the United States compare and compete with the best and more experienced players on the planet?
The North Americans ended up putting the world on notice to watch out, and they had a good time doing it.
"I don't know how much [fun] the other groups had, but we had an awesome time," said 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, who played in every contest for North America and finished with three points (two goals and an assist) at the World Cup. "We're all the same age for the most part, so it was easy to come together, and we had a lot of fun on and off the ice."
The good times couldn't last forever and the team was quietly eliminated from the tournament last Thursday, a day after its final preliminary-round game, a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory against Sweden.
Video: MacKinnon on his World Cup of Hockey experience
North America needed Russia to lose to Finland to advance to the semifinals, but instead Russia won 3-0 and took the tiebreaker over the young guns with its head-to-head victory on Sept. 20.
In that contest, North America nearly erased a three-goal deficit and even hit a post in the final seconds on a shot that would have tied the game, but a Russian run of four tallies in a 6:15 time frame in the second period was too much for the young players to overcome.
Still, MacKinnon appreciated getting to experience the World Cup with teammates around his same age.
"It was great. It was a big challenge, especially with a younger team," he said. "We beat Finland and Sweden, and almost had Russia. So we beat some really good teams, and we're definitely proud of what we accomplished."
The squad focused on a run-and-gun style of play, featuring stretch passes, speed and shots--lots and lots of shots.
"We looked at the strengths of our team, and it was built on speed and skill," said the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native. "Our systems were like that. We didn't have too much structure. We just went out and played, and we were really good together, so it was a lot of fun."
After defeating Team Europe 4-0 and 7-4 in pre-tournament action and then opening up round-robin play with a 4-1 win over Finland, it didn't take long for North America to become a fan favorite for both American and Canadian supporters.
"Going into it, we felt like we were the underdog, and as the tournament progressed we felt like a powerhouse and a favorite," he said. "We beat some really good teams and dominated some really good teams as well. We're definitely proud with the way we played."
Just as the two countries' fan bases came together, so did the players, putting away any old rivalries they might have had from their time with Team Canada or Team USA at previous World Juniors, Under-18 Worlds and other international events.
"We're all familiar with each other, just playing each other growing up," MacKinnon said. "I think everybody was pretty offensive and played a similar style of game, so it was easy to create chemistry and come together."
One of the moments that the 2016 World Cup will best be remembered for will be North America's contest against Sweden and how MacKinnon delivered the winning goal in overtime.
Soon after MacKinnon stickhandled, deked, toe-dragged and backhanded a shot into the net with 49 seconds left in the extra session, the game quickly gained traction on social media as one of the most exciting of the year, and possibly ever.
"I just saw a poke check and was trying to get around that," MacKinnon recalled of the moves he made. "I didn't really plan it our or anything. It was very fortunate. I didn't know if I had that move in me, but I'm glad that it went in."
The excitement of that contest then turned into anticipation with the team and its fans having to wait until the next day to see if the 2-1-0 record North America sported would be enough to give it a chance to play Canada in the semifinals.
In the end, that didn't happen, and MacKinnon's goal became the last memory of Team North America in the tournament, and possibly forever if the model of an under-24 team isn't continued in future World Cups.
However if North America did move on, MacKinnon said he thinks the team would have had a good shot at dethroning his home country of Canada, the back-to-back champions at both the Olympics and World Championship.
"I think we had more of a hunger to win. We felt like we could beat anybody," MacKinnon said. "It is tough that we got eliminated like that; it was kind of a weird format. As we went on, we felt like we could have given Canada a run for their money. It would have been nice to play them."