The members of the under-23 team at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey don’t necessarily have a country to rally around, as it’s made up of players from the U.S. and Canada and is called Team North America.
However, four of those players will be able to rally around a city – Pittsburgh.
Area natives John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks), J.T. Miller (New York Rangers), Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Vince Trocheck (Florida Panthers) were all taken within the first 43 picks of the 2011 NHL Draft, forming the largest class of Pittsburgh born-and-trained players in the city’s history.
Five years later, all of them have become key contributors to their respective NHL clubs and were chosen to play for Team North America at the World Cup. And the opportunity these guys have to be on this team together is an exciting one for them.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” Gibson said. “We all kind of know what’s at stake and I think we’re all confident in each other and as a team. Maybe some people are counting us out, but I think we have confidence in ourselves and all of our abilities.”
What’s also exciting for them is the chance to play a pre-tournament game right here in their hometown.
Team North America will play Team Czech Republic on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 3:30 p.m. at CONSOL Energy Center for the first game of a doubleheader, with Team Canada facing Team Russia at 7:30 p.m. Gibson hopes the quartet can serve as inspiration for young hockey players in the area during that exhibition match.
“It’ll be awesome,” Gibson said. “I think since the draft we’ve been trying to be role models. Hopefully kids locally will want to follow us. I think we’re still trying to do that. And being able to play a game here in Pittsburgh, it’ll give them a chance to come out and see some of us, the young kids. So hopefully they just kind of look up to us and want to follow in our footsteps.”
Gibson and the rest of the Pittsburgh kids come back here every offseason as they all own houses in the area, and all of them participate in informal skates at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex throughout the summer.
They’re proud to be from here, and are looking forward to showing off the city and just how much of a hockey town it’s become on an international stage for a few days.
“I think this is the most guys we’ve had in the summer skates, and summer skates are getting better,” Gibson said. “Before, people would go back to their teams a lot earlier and this year, we’re still here in September skating. It shows how good the skates are and how good the facility is here that we can use and that they offer to us.
“It’s definitely exciting and they’ve taken a lot of steps. Hopefully it trickles down to the youth development and they keep getting better and hopefully get drafted soon.”
Gibson is invested in the area’s youth development, as his younger brother plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite (which is based out of UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex) – even driving him from practice from time to time.
For Gibson’s family to be able to come and potentially see him in game action next week means a lot to him, especially with him playing across the country for Anaheim.
“Any time you come back here it’s nice,” he said. “Especially for me, I only get to come back once a year. So playing another game here with some of my family (in the stands), it’s the only time they get to see me. So even if I play or I don’t play, it’s not a big deal, but it’ll just be cool to be back and be out there and be in our hometown.”
Gibson will be battling with the Penguins’ own Matt Murray and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck for the starting job. In front of them is an intriguing group that’s got the attention of the rest of the tournament.
Even Sidney Crosby pointed out Team North America as the team to watch, mentioning how they have incredibly exciting talents like Connor McDavid on the roster along with a lot of speed.
“That’s the thing,” Gibson smiled when he heard that. “We’ve got a lot of good, quick young guys, so hopefully we can use that. It’s exciting to play against some of the best players. Hopefully we can surprise some people and win some games.”