QUEBEC CITY -- When coach Ralph Krueger watched Team Europe approach its dressing room Monday, he noticed something curious. He saw his Swiss players speaking German. He saw his Slovaks speaking Slovak. But once they were inside? That changed.
"As soon as they walked into the locker room, I never heard a world of German or [Slovak] anymore as they were getting dressed," Krueger said after his team's first practice for the World Cup of Hockey, at Videotron Centre. "Everybody spoke English. It was just like, now we're a team."
That was the question, really, for Team Europe, the composite grouping created of the rest of Europe, the players who are not from Russia, Finland, Sweden or the Czech Republic. They were the others, a bundle of players from Germany and Slovakia, Switzerland and Denmark, Austria and Norway, Slovenia and France.
Some of those players come with countrymen as teammates, with six from Slovakia, five from Germany, four from Switzerland, three from Denmark. Some come alone, like Anze Kopitar from Slovenia, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare from France, Thomas Vanek from Austria, Mats Zuccarello from Norway. Plus, there's a coaching staff led by Canadians Krueger and Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, causing defenseman Zdeno Chara to call it not Team Europe but "almost like a Team World."
And that's what they would be playing for, the Team Europe symbol on the front of their jerseys, rather than the national flag stitched on each player's shoulder. But Krueger wants to make sure those individual identities remain, even as he works to build a team out of them before Team Europe opens the tournament against Team USA at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 17 (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).
"The biggest challenge in all of that, of course, is to just approach it completely as a competitive situation where they are representing their countries, No. 1, so we're not going to take that away from them, whether it's one player from a country or six," Krueger said. "They are first and foremost playing for their countries."
That could be a messy proposition, with no identity, no sense of country, not exactly.
But they're working on it.
Video: Ralph Krueger on the mentality of Team Europe
"We have a few days and maybe a week before the real thing starts," Chara said. "So for sure, we're going to be working on finding the identity and creating friendships and something that we can be proud of. We want to carry that on the ice and perform well."
So far, though he had just half his team at its initial practice, Krueger sees what he had hoped to see. He sees a group working to find a common approach, a common path, a common language.
It's also a common goal.
Team Europe is not exactly a top pick to win this tournament, something that its players are well aware of, something that they have acknowledged -- and would like to change.
"There's a lot of great players in here," defenseman Roman Josi said. "It's just about finding that chemistry and building a team and having those players play together. Yeah, there's not as much pressure on us as on other teams, I guess. We're not the favorites, but we definitely go there to make some noise."
And not only that, there is another thing that binds these players, even if they come from homes spread across most of Europe. Many of them, perhaps most of them, never were the favorites, just like Team Europe is not the favorite. They were not from the United States or Canada. They did not have the structure, some of them, or the easy path.
"We feel a real instant connection because all of these countries are used to being underdogs," Krueger said. "All eight of them go into every international tournament as outsiders, but this group coming together, we can look everybody we're playing in the eye and play with courage.
"My job is to just make sure that they understand there's an opportunity here that doesn't come along for us. I coached Switzerland for 13 years, and every time we did anything against a big country was an upset. I don't see it that way here. I think we can play everybody eye-to-eye, and there's a lot of excitement.
"I personally don't see a lot of difficulties, but that will be my job and the coaching staff's job, to connect all these countries while, at the same time, still letting them be proud to be representing their country. Their flags will be on their arms, and they should wear those proudly."