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IN DEPTH: Rooting Interests

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
In an almost poetic way, international athletic competition brings citizens of different countries together in an outward display of pride.


There is no doubt the people of Canada will band together to support their country with passion come September when hockey takes the world stage. No different from the United States, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia or Sweden, the citizens of Canada will rally in support of their nation’s team at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Oilers fans will throw their support behind the Maple Leaf, but they may feel their heartstrings or support pulled in another direction as well. Team North America will feature a heavy share of Oilers storylines when they hit the ice in September. The newly minted 23-and-under squad will compete against the older, more experienced national teams.

Connor McDavid is one of the headliners of the highly talented youth movement selected to represent both Canada and the U.S. as one unit. Oilers President of Hockey Operations Peter Chiarelli is acting as a manager for the team, along with Stan Bowman, helping select from the talent pool from both countries. Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan has been chosen to lead Team North America from the bench when the tournament takes off in September. Oilers Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft joins McLellan behind the bench.

Team North America announced its initial 16-man roster and there is reason to be impressed. There are various rooting interests for the Oilers involving Team North America, as well as the other teams in the tournament. As of the 16-man roster announcement, four Oilers players have been selected to represent either their home country or the conglomerates — Team Europe and Team North America.
 
OILERS IMPLICATIONS
 Photo by Andy Devlin
Ever since the World Cup of Hockey announcement, the speculation that McDavid would be a certain addition to Team North America ran rampant. There was not much doubt, and it’s even less surprising he was named given both Chiarelli and McLellan’s immediate proximity to the Oilers 2015 first-overall pick.

“It’s very special,” said McDavid. “Any time you get the chance to be named to a tournament like this, something as unique as this, it’s very special.”

Following a one-goal, two-point performance in the Oilers game in Columbus on Friday night, McDavid found himself above all rookie skaters in points per game (1.13). His 34 points (13-21-34) in just 30 games this season also slots him second in the entire league amongst all players, both veterans and rookies, in scoring per contest.

McDavid will combine his firepower with other high-profile young talent on Team North America, such as Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon from Colorado and Brandon Saad from Columbus.

McDavid isn’t the only Oilers youngster to be named to a World Cup roster. Leon Draisaitl, 20, was named to Team Europe. That team combines players from various European countries. The German joins the likes of Chicago’s Marian Hossa (Slovakia) and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), among many NHL talents.

“It’s a big honour to be on this team and be part of a great event like that. It’s obviously very exciting for myself,” said Draisaitl, the youngest member of Team Europe.

Taken third overall in 2014, the Oilers centre has had a breakout second season. Following a 37-game NHL stint last season in which he posted nine points (2-7-9), Draisaitl has exploded offensively for 45 points (17-28-45) in 57 games this season.

Draisaitl is looking at the World Cup as his chance to grow as an individual player. Being around the European talent his team has assembled will only be beneficial to him.

“It’s huge,” said Draisaitl. “That’s how you learn, that’s how you get better, being around those guys who went through the same kind of things. Obviously, I’m going to have some good resources at that tournament.”

One of those resources is the aforementioned Kopitar.

“For myself, I think Kopitar is definitely the biggest guy I’m looking forward to meeting and being around. He’s one of my favourite players and always has been,” said Draisaitl. “He’s someone I kind of model my game after so it will be exciting to be around him.”

Joining Draisaitl with Team Europe is none other than his Oilers teammate, Slovakian defenceman Andrej Sekera. The Oilers blueliner, playing in his first season for the blue and orange, has represented his country before but will now don Team Europe’s colours.

Oilers winger Lauri Korpikoski will wear the all-too-familiar Finnish crest again for his home country. Like Sekera, Korpikoski skated for his homeland at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“I’m really honoured to be on the team and get to wear the jersey again,” said Korpikoski. “Obviously, I’ve got a lot of good memories from Sochi the last time I played for Finland. Hopefully, we can make some more in September.”
DIFFERENT COLOURS
 Photo by Getty Images
For Korpikoski, the World Cup is much like any other international tournament he’s skated in. He’s representing Finland, once again, like he has done before at various levels throughout his career. Korpikoski has skated for Finland internationally since he played in junior. Through various World Junior Championships, World Championships and even Olympic Games, representing Finland is familiar.

For the other Oilers skaters named to World Cup of Hockey rosters, this tournament will feel much different than their previous international experiences. Used to donning their home country colours, Draisaitl, McDavid and Sekera approach this tournament differently.

“It’s definitely representing your country again, but it’s a little bit different with Team Europe,” said Sekera. “You’re representing a team within the team. It’s an honour for me and I’m looking forward to it.”

Sekera has skated for Slovakia on many levels of international play, including two Olympic Games. Like Sekera, McDavid knows what it’s like to represent his nation. McDavid helped lead Team Canada to World Junior gold last year. Playing for Team North America will be a different experience, but one he relishes nonetheless.

“Any chance you get to represent, and I know it’s not your country but, you still feel a part of something,” said McDavid. “I think it’s always special and I think for this, to be named to such a good, young group of guys, there’s so many names that could have been named. To be chosen, it definitely feels good.”

Draisaitl sheds the German colours to join Sekera with Team Europe.

“It’s a little unique,” said Draisaitl. “It’s definitely different. You have countries that actually play for their country and then you have the two teams that get put together from different nations and then the under-23. It will be very exciting to see what all the teams look like and how they match up against each other.”

“It’s always taking pride in representing your family and country,” Sekera added. “I don’t think it will be much different than playing in the NHL, but I’m pretty sure for everybody playing on Team Europe it will be a little different.”

For Team North America in particular, there is a certain level of shedding animosity between countries to compete together as one. Whereas Canada and the U.S. usually compete, and will do just that against each other at the World Cup, Team North America combines the best of the young crop from both countries and challenges them to mesh.

“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue one bit. When players put on the equipment, they put it on to win,” said McLellan.

With McDavid and Eichel, for example, McLellan expects competitiveness shown when pitted against each other to serve as the drive that pulls them together.

“When they get together, I think they’re going to compete real hard,” said McLellan. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see them develop a bond or a friendship that will last for a while. For our team to be successful, that’s going to have to happen for a lot of players. That can be said for all of the countries.”

Playing with your rivals adds a tantalizing twist to the tournament.

“I think it’s definitely a situation that’s unique as well,” said McDavid. “I think this might be the only time we get to play with each other and that is definitely pretty cool.”

Regardless of which team these four Oilers are playing for, pride will push them to compete against the rest of the best.
UNDER DOGS
 Photo Provided
There are more Oilers storylines with Team North America than any other group at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. From Chiarelli to McDavid, to the coaching staff, Oilers fans will have no issue finding reasons to watch that particular group take to the ice in September.

“We’re really excited about the group we’ve announced, but also the additions that are going to come later on,” McLellan said after the 16-man rosters were announced. “When we put this team, finally, together in the summer and get working on lines and pairs, I think the coaching staff is going to be really excited about working with them and there’s a mixture of mature young players and real young players. The energy and enthusiasm that they’ll bring will be a real asset, I think, for our hockey club.”

When it came to crafting the North American roster, there were certain challenges involved that some of the other teams didn’t have. For example, Chiarelli and Bowman were scouting still developing players. The defence, forwards and goaltenders are all evolving, changing and developing. They aren’t yet established, tried, tested and true NHL talents like some of the other teams boast.

“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a lot of work, and we’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people,” said Chiarelli. “You’re looking at players that are changing every day, which has been pretty cool.”

Bowman echoes those sentiments.

“I think the fun part is that these are the guys that are just starting their career and a lot of them haven’t had a lot of NHL games, but as Peter said, as the year has gone on, some of them have emerged as important players on their team. So we’re pretty fortunate to have these guys. It’s going to be an exciting team.”

There is no doubt Team North America is just that — exciting. The question with them is whether they can compete against the more established veteran talents, like those of Canada, Sweden and the U.S.

“Intimidation probably isn’t the thing, it’s more a lack of experience,” explained Bowman. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our roster that have been in the NHL for a couple years. I think these guys are going to play with a lot of abandon and a lot of excitement and I think that’s probably the biggest thing. We don’t have as much experience as the other rosters we’ve seen so far.”

McLellan doesn’t believe the NHL is a “young man’s league” considering the wealth of elite veteran talent, as displayed on the various World Cup rosters. However, the young talent coming up that’s eligible for Team North America is almost unbelievable.

“There is an availability to us of a tremendous amount of talent at that U-24 age that has made this process very interesting,” said McLellan. “I know when the concept first came out and I wasn’t a part of it, you could initially think of five, six, seven guys that were really dominant at that age. Then you start putting the list together and there are real difficult choices that have been made and will have to be made.”

Still, regardless of talent level, the young guys may have a bit of a chip on their shoulder to prove they belong on a world stage.

Todd McLellan will coach Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Photo by Andy Devlin.
“I think the older guys always kind of look at the younger guys as maybe not as good or something, I don’t know,” said McDavid. “There’s definitely something about being a young guy in the league that it would be pretty cool to be able to do something special against some of those older, more veteran teams.”

That chip on their shoulder also comes down to respect, and Team North America wants to earn it.

“We’re a young team,” said Florida Panthers and Team North America defenceman Aaron Ekblad. “We don’t really have a lot of expectations going into it, but I think we do have a chance to win it. I mean you look at some of the names on the team and some of the players that can do quite a bit of damage, and you see them doing it in the NHL. So it definitely is a team that you won’t want to take lightly.”

It’s not just the young guys who are eager to show the vets they belong. The older, more experienced skaters at the World Cup are excited to see how Team North America comes together.

“It will be good, especially for the league,” said Sekera. “They wanted to put that little twist in it and they select the two teams with Europe and the younger team with a lot of young guys. They can showcase their talent and it will just bring more spectators to the game… It’s also a big challenge too. Older guys don’t have the legs of the young guys so you’ve got to play smarter.”

It will be up to the Oilers head coach and his staff to quiet internal rivalries, unite an already motivated group and lead the tournament “underdogs” to glory.

“We’re going to have a good group,” said McLellan. “We’re going to have an enthusiastic group, we’re going to have a group that’s going to be a threat to some of the powerhouses and it’s kind of nice to be the underdogs, especially for the young guys. They won’t feel that type of pressure to win like Canada or the U.S. does. It’s our job to upset and that’s what we’re going there to do.”

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey begins on September 17 in Toronto. The NHL and NHLPA will put on the two-week tournament, featuring more than 150 of the NHL’s best. When the hockey world turns its eyes to the Air Canada Centre from September 17 through to a potential third-and-deciding game of the final round series on October 1, Oilers fans will certainly have no trouble finding players, teams, coaches and storylines to cheer for.

By Chris Wescott/edmontonoilers.com


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