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Upstart Europeans Anything But an Underdog

After having little success separately, Team Europe has come together nicely at World Cup

by Evan Sporer / Special to Wild.com

TORONTO - Over the past 40 years, the same six teams have earned every medal handed out in ice hockey at the Winter Olympics. 

Not coincidentally, those six countries kept their spots in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The rest of the world became an experiment. 

If for anything else but parity's sake, the inclusion of Team Europe and Team North America at hockey's latest best-on-best tournament has leveled the playing field.

 And while those who make up Team Europe, representing eight different countries, would sooner take a victory lap draped in their native flag, Team Europe represents an actual, legitimate shot at just that: Victory.

"It's another great stage to represent yourself," said Nino Niederreiter, the lone Wild representative on the amalgamated Europeans. "Obviously for our team, it's kind of special because there are [eight] countries in one team, and everybody brings a different type of game; a different kind of culture into the team. It's definitely a great opportunity for myself to showcase myself and get ready for the season to start."

Gone are the lopsided preliminary round games that weeded out countries that were more often blown out then in close games.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics, in the 12 games those six countries - Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic - played against others teams in the group stage, they won 11. 

They won by a margin of 3.3 goals per game. 

"I don't think with Team Slovenia we would have any chance of winning these types of games," Anze Kopitar, Team Europe's captain said. "To have had a team put together like Team Europe, it's great. We're certainly on the right track, and we've shown that we can play against anybody."

Slovenia, a participant in the 2014 Olympics, lost to the United States and Russia by a combined score of 10-3, and defeated Slovakia 3-1. 

Kopitar and Team Europe defeated the United States to open the 2016 World Cup. 

Niederreiter's home country of Switzerland, ranked seventh in the world by the IIHF, has never made it past the quarterfinal round of the Olympics.

"At the end of the day you always want to represent your country in a tournament like that, but at the same time when I heard there was going to be a Team Europe my goal was to be a part of it," Niederreiter said. "I was trying to prove myself to be a part of that team, and now I'm fortunate and lucky to be a part of it."

So while Team Europe was being cast into the role of underdog, its locker room, which has won a combined eight Stanley Cups, had anything but that on its mind.

"We're not just one country, so it's different," Niederreiter said. "We have (eight) countries combined in one team, so it's definitely something special, which is probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. It's just very fun to be a part of."

There's been no official word as to if Team Europe and Team North America will become mainstays at the World Cup, or other best-on-best tournaments put on by the National Hockey League and the Player's Association. 

But in Team Europe's eyes, it's not about the future, but the present, and right now all that's guaranteed is Europe will play in the semifinal round, a berth clinched on Tuesday night when the United States lost to Canada.

The concept, and the roster is finally giving these collection of players a chance at international ice hockey glory. 

To create eight teams, it was the right thing; to create a Team North America and a Team Europe," Thomas Vanek said. "If you substitute those two teams with Slovakia and Switzerland - those two countries are probably above the other countries that are in it - but would they be as competitive as the other countries that are in it? Would they be as competitive as this team? I believe not."

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