Hockey Night in Canada comes early this year, but it’s not the typical NHL rivalry match-up that we usually tune into. After 12 long years, the World Cup of Hockey returns to the forefront of puck head minds everywhere. Eight teams will compete for the title of “World Champions” including the United States and Canada, one of the sport’s fiercest international rivalries.
In the Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. lost to Canada in the gold medal game. Then four years later in Sochi, the U.S. lost to Canada in the semi-finals before being knocked out of the bronze medal game by Finland. Canada would go on to win gold for the second Olympics in a row. Nobody is going to be gunning for Canada harder than the U.S. But that doesn’t mean the competition can’t be friendly, at least in part.
A Canada vs. USA contest would pit NHL teammates against each other. Team USA forward and Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane faces off against former teammate Jonathan Toews. Montreal Canadiens’ captain and USA forward Max Pacioretty squares up against Team Canada’s Shea Weber, one of the NHL’s deadliest defensemen. There is no doubt Team Canada has a nearly unstoppable force behind hockey legends such as Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty.
The World Cup of Hockey, however, is where eternal stories are born. In 1996, the U.S. beat what was possibly the greatest hockey team ever assembled in a three-game series. Team Canada was stacked with Martin Brodeur, Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky, Curtis Joseph, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Scott Niedermayer, Joe Sakic, Scott Stevens and Steve Yzerman. The U.S. was led by supreme goaltending in Mike Richter as well as hockey idols Mike Modano and Brian Leetch. It was an upset that rivals the famous “Miracle on Ice,” except with less Cold War implication.
Team USA’s coaching staff is aware of the gravity of the international stage. They sent each of their players a game tape of the 1996 World Cup, an epic story where Team USA rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the third period to beat Canada in the third and final game. There is no better way to hype up your players than by informing them that immortality awaits the team that topples the Canadian tyrants. Team Canada isn’t sweating it though. They have 13 returning players from their last Olympic gold medal team and are comfortable in the spotlight. There are bragging rights on the line and Canada is not the type to step down from a challenge.
Other players looking to prove themselves fall within Team North America, a ragtag group of under 23-year-olds. The team has five of the six most recent No. 1 picks in the NHL draft with Nathan Mackinnon, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Aaron Ekblad and Auston Matthews. They have already vanquished Team Europe in a pre-tournament match-up 4-0. Team North America relied heavily on their speed and dexterity to overwhelm the veteran team from Europe which consisted of some of the NHL’s most familiar faces. Two goals from Mackinnon and a shutout from Matt Murray, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory last spring, hoisted Team North America head and shoulders above their competition. It was a game reminiscent of when a bunch of no-name college students took on the best in the world and beat them back in 1980.
Most hockey pundits doubted the young guns earlier this year when the move to create the team was announced. No one believed the youngsters could pull off any modicum of success. They’re underdogs and fate loves underdogs. They are also probably the fastest team in the tournament. Hockey is a game that favors speed. These hotshot kids are not messing around and no one is going to underestimate them come tournament time.
In Group A lies Teams Canada, Czech Republic, Europe and the United States. In Group B lies Teams Finland, North America, Russia and Sweden. Two teams from each group move on to the knock-out round after playing three games in round robin tournament-style play. The finals will be a best-of-three format. It’s cutthroat hockey and nobody is taking prisoners. Make sure to tune in to watch the best of the best compete in a tournament all their own. The first game of the tournament, Team Europe vs. Team USA, is scheduled for Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m.