Andrej Sekera was chuckling as the words came out of his mouth.
Team Europe had just wiped out Sweden – by most accounts, the second-best hockey country in the world – in a 3-2 overtime win at the World Cup of Hockey. Suddenly the misfits were moving on, to the chagrin of most of the hockey world, and some of the players saw the humour there.
A group derided as “Team Leftovers” when the format was first announced – and that had the longest odds coming in at 33 to 1 – will now face Team Canada for the championship.
They realize it wasn’t what anyone expected.
“The thing is there was no team like this before,” Sekera said, when asked about Team Europe – made up of European NHL players who aren’t from the four main European hockey powers of Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic – surprising everyone. “And I don’t think there’ll be anything like this any more. But it’s a pretty good feeling.”
“I think the better we do, the lower the chances might be that Team Europe gets invited back,” head coach Ralph Krueger said. “That’s a joke. But it’s the opportunity in this that we’ve tapped into.”
A joke perhaps, but there is likely some truth there, too. When the organizers at the NHL and the Players’ Association first came up with this World Cup format, they settled on the Team Europe concept largely because they wanted to include world-class players such as Anze Kopitar.
Slovenia didn’t have a hope of sending a whole team to a best-on-best event, which would shut out the Los Angeles Kings captain, so why not give him some help and make the games more competitive?
The problem was they may have given him too much.
Team Europe will likely be a one-and-done idea. The NHL is hoping countries such as Slovakia, Switzerland and Denmark continue to improve, to the point that in 2020, at the next tournament, there won’t be the lopsided scores that have become commonplace at so many international events.
The reality, too, is as much of a feel-good story as it is having Kopitar, Zdeno Chara and netminder Jaroslav Halak – who has been this team’s great equalizer – lead this team deep into the tournament, it will likely have a brutal impact on the interest level.
Attendance for Sunday’s game in Toronto was dreadful, with the Air Canada Centre half full at best. Television ratings for Team Europe’s games have been weak, and they’re hardly the kind of rival that broadcasters were hoping for in the final.
Even overseas, the buzz has been limited. Unlike Sweden or Finland, which can draw millions of viewers because of the fervour around their national teams, none of the eight countries represented on Team Europe really helps the World Cup generate revenue.
And the fact Team Europe effectively eliminated Team USA, in their first meaningful game of the tournament, won’t help anyone’s cause with ESPN, after that network took another chance on hockey by buying the U.S. rights.
Much of the credit for Team Europe’s run belongs with Krueger. The former Edmonton Oilers coach took a break from running the Southampton Football Club to convince this ragtag group – including long-time Swiss team captain Mark Streit, who had openly criticized the team’s existence – to play hard for a made-up team in a made-up tournament.
By all accounts, it was a marvellous sales job – a huge credit to Krueger’s leadership abilities, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given how in-demand he has been as a keynote speaker for years in Europe. (One of his many unique credits is writing a best-selling book in Germany about team building called Teamlife – Over Setbacks to Success.)
“I know it wasn’t easy for him to bring this group together,” Halak said, after praising Krueger’s work building team chemistry.
“Nothing can be done if you don’t come together as a team and play as one, and create some great memories,” Chara said of Krueger’s message to him, when they first met to develop Team Europe’s strategy. “The No. 1 priority was bond as a team.”
By all accounts, that is what’s happened. The European team stifled Sweden for long stretches of Sunday’s game, lulling the Swedes into a boring chess match that was only broken open by brief flourishes from the Sedin twins. The Swedes needed a goal from Erik Karlsson with four minutes to force overtime, but the extra frame lasted only a few minutes before Europe’s Tomas Tatar scored his second of the day to seal the win.
His teammates – a handful of them fellow Slovaks, but mostly not – then piled into the corner, where they all stood in a team-wide embrace, bouncing together as their goal song (Seven Nation Army) blared.
A lot of these players “had to fight their way in [to the NHL] because they were from countries that weren’t respected in terms of producing NHL players,” Krueger said after the game, replicating a version of a speech he made to his team during the tournament. “We’ve just got a whole locker room full of guys that have had to fight to get here and had to fight to stay. But, in the end, they’re NHL players and they’re great NHL players.”
Team Europe’s players know they are in tough against Canada. They’re the oldest team in the tournament and their lineup has holes. (Defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, who doesn’t have a contract in the NHL, played nearly 24 minutes against Sweden.) Several said they believed “good luck” would be one of the biggest factors in having a chance in the best-of-three final.
The fact they even made it this far, however, will go down as a victory. For once, their small hockey nations mattered.
Even if the end result is they never get a chance to again.
“Not many of us have been in the finals at international tournaments,” Marian Hossa said. “There’s something new for lots of people in our dressing room. Definitely we’re going to enjoy that and try to make the best out of it.”Report Typo/Error