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World Cup: Team North America faces a 'tall order' in Toronto

by Nicholas Cotsonika / Columbus Blue Jackets


Imagine Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 like the United States in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, a group of kids trying to pull off a monumental upset and win it all.

Imagine Todd McLellan as Herb Brooks in the movie "Miracle," a coach trying to unite players from different backgrounds -- not rival states and colleges in this case, but rival countries and NHL teams.

"Who do you play for?" McLellan says.

Players respond with "Canada!" and "USA!" and "Edmonton!" and "Buffalo!"

And then some modern-day Mike Eruzione finally gets it.

"North America!" he yells.

If only it would work like that.

There will be no Brooks-like bag skate for Team North America when the NHL's best players 23-and-younger from Canada and the United States gather for training camp in Montreal and Quebec City in September.

No rope courses or trust falls or other team-building drills, either.

"I think that stuff sort of has to happen organically," Team North America co-general manager Stan Bowman said. "We don't have any specific activities planned which we think are going to put everybody together. Hopefully it's just going to sort of happen through the competitive spirit of these guys.

"They're all elite players, and it's a challenge. I think in a lot of ways we're the underdogs. I think we're sort of the wild-card team. We could do some damage, but we've got some really powerful teams in our own pool.

"So it's going to be a tall order to even make the semis, but that's our goal."

No one knows quite what to expect from Team North America, including people involved with the team itself, because there has never been another quite like it in a major competition.

That includes Team Europe, comprised of European players who aren't from the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Russia for the purposes of this eight-team tournament. Though Team Europe is made up of players from different backgrounds, at least it has NHL veterans.

Team North America is split almost evenly between young Americans and Canadians, who usually want to defeat each other in international competition, not work together. McLellan will have two weeks, including three pre-tournament games, to get his players on the same page before they play Sept. 18 in their first of three games in the preliminary round.

The bad news: To advance to the semifinals, they must finish in the top two in Group B, which also includes Team Finland, Team Russia and Team Sweden. To win the World Cup, they must win a single-elimination semifinal against the likes of Team Canada, Team Czech Republic, Team Europe and Team USA, then the best-of-3 final.

The good news: A short tournament in September works in their favor, because it promotes randomness -- especially if they make the anything-can-happen-in-one-game semifinal -- and young legs might not need as long to get going.

"I think in some ways, that's an advantage for the young guys," Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said. "They still have all the flexibility in their body and they don't need as much time. But for anybody who has played in the League for a while, usually you have a month of training camp."

They face less pressure, especially compared to Team Canada, which is following two Olympic gold medals, trying to remain the world's top hockey nation and playing on home ice. But they should be supported well at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, with so many Canadians on the roster and one American, center Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, belonging to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"They don't have a lot of fear," Bowman said. "Young and dumb might be a bad way to put it, but they're going to show up and they want to win. They don't put maybe too much analysis into it, but I think that's a good thing. We're going to try to use that to our advantage."

McLellan and his assistants -- Jon Cooper, Peter DeBoer, Dave Tippett and Jay Woodcroft -- will not over-coach. They wouldn't have time to over-coach even if they wanted to. So for the most part they're going to turn the kids loose.

"We're probably not going to be the most technically proficient team, but I think we have a lot of energy, speed and talent," Bowman said. "Maybe that'll trump tactics. Obviously the coaches are going to do what they can to get them playing a certain way, but I think probably more so than some of the other teams we're going to rely more just on talent and youthful exuberance."

Miracle? If they win the World Cup, it will be only a minor miracle. They might be young, but they will have Matthews, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

"They'll never play on the same team ever again," Bowman said. "They're all franchise players, and you can't afford to have three franchise players. It doesn't work in today's game.

"Twenty years from now, they're all going to be star, star players. The fact they all got to play together in this one short tournament, I think that's going to be fun to watch to see how this plays out."

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