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Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe reacts after allowing the eventual game winning goal to Brad Marchand of Team Canada during the third period during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe reacts after allowing the eventual game winning goal to Brad Marchand of Team Canada during the third period during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Hockey

What the much-maligned World Cup of Hockey got right and wrong Add to ...

It was unmistakable as Team Europe’s players came off the ice on Thursday night, having blown a 1-0 lead late in the third period to lose the World Cup of Hockey to Team Canada in the game’s final minute.

While the Canadians were obviously elated they had won, their joy hardly matched the utter devastation of their opponent. Europe’s disappointment went beyond anything anyone could have expected when this makeshift team of eight countries was thrown together a few weeks ago to play together for the first time.

Canada has dominated the World Cup of Hockey (The Globe and Mail)

No one expected them to get this far. No one expected them to become this invested in the idea.

Frans Nielsen, the terrific two-way centre who signed with the Detroit Red Wings over the summer, was near tears as he recounted what the event had meant to him, the first Danish player ever drafted into the NHL.

Related: How Canada turned around its international hockey program

Related: The World Cup of Hockey’s biggest flaw? Canada is too good

Read more: Team North America creates a headache for World Cup organizers

He had never played on a team that had beaten Sweden, he explained. In this event, they did it twice.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nielsen said quietly. “How 23 guys got together that way in a short time and played so well together. I’m going to remember this tournament the rest of my life.

“We always thought we had a good team in there and everybody kept laughing at us. I don’t know why.”

This third edition of the World Cup is likely going to be remembered mostly for the chance that organizers took when they decided to create two oddball, non-national teams to play up against the six best hockey countries in the world.

It led to the tournament being derided as a gimmick from day one, by fans and media. And, at first, many of the players were uneasy about the decision to stray from a purely country-on-country format.

Europeans, like Mark Streit, argued they wanted to play for their national teams – in his case, Switzerland – not an amalgamation of leftover countries.

“I don’t like it at all,” Streit said back in January of 2015, when the details of the World Cup format began to filter out. “Not one thing about it.”

Young players, like Aaron Ekblad, also had significant reservations initially about suiting up for Team North America, a 23-and-under roster that became the talk of the tournament during the preliminary rounds.

“He was looking at us like ‘Are you guys crazy? We’ll get killed,’ ” NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider recalled of when he first raised the idea, beginning with Ekblad at the 2015 all-star game in Columbus.

Ultimately, the two teams became the best stories of the tournament.

North America had by far the most exciting games, capturing the pure joy of the world juniors on one roster pitted against veteran national teams. In the end, the most compelling game of the entire tournament was the young guns’ overtime thriller against Sweden last week, an end-to-end battle some hockey lifers were calling one of the best international games in decades.

They served as a great showcase for just how phenomenal the NHL’s phenoms are, with Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and Auston Matthews putting on a highlight-reel show night after night.

Team Europe didn’t have an exciting brand of hockey going for them – in fact, it was often the opposite – but coach Ralph Krueger, taking a break from his work in the English Premier League as chairman of Southampton, emerged as a star for his motivational speeches and positive outlook.

Players like Nielsen and Streit, meanwhile, told wonderful stories about how far the game has come in countries like Denmark and Switzerland, and how special it was to have a chance to face the true hockey powers in games they had a chance to win.

“I’ve played for over 20 years and I’ve never experienced a game like that,” Streit said of nearly beating Canada. “I thought we played an unbelievable game. … But then heartbreak. It’s a very, very, very tough loss. It’s tough to find the right words right now. Heartbreaking.”

“I think we gave Canada a pretty good run for it,” Team Europe captain Anze Kopitar said. “This is going to stay with us for a long, long time.”

“I’m grateful Team Europe existed for this year,” Krueger added. “As we all are in that room. I don’t think you’d find one person, staff or players, that’s going to say anything but that they will remember September, 2016, for the journey we undertook.”

What’s interesting is that neither team is expected back in 2020, for the next World Cup, which will probably land in Western Canada, possibly in Edmonton’s state-of-the-art new building.

Organizers have a lot they can take from this Toronto event in terms of what they can improve. Empty seats were a glaring issue throughout the tournament, especially for the afternoon games, and Canadian coach Mike Babcock recommended having the event in two cities so that every game could be played at night.

The various fan parties and events, including a viewing party outside the Air Canada Centre for Game 1 of the final, also fell flat, costing the NHL on the revenue side and generating little buzz in the host city.

The playoff format was another issue, as four teams were eliminated early, including Team USA after just two games and Team North America due to a dubious overtime point rule. Having quarter-final games, with teams ranked No. 3 through 6 battling to face the top two from each group in the semis, makes more sense.

Taking the final down to a one game, winner-take-all, would up the stakes, as well, as no one was likely to be able to beat Canada twice in three games.

That absolute dominance of Team Canada for much of the event was also another drawback, as they appeared to be playing at half speed in many games and still went undefeated. Even with Europe challenging them admirably in the final, the World Cup badly lacked the drama of the Vancouver Games – for obvious reasons – but the intensity also fell short of even Sochi.

That’s harder to fix.

If the NHL isn’t going to go to the next Olympics in South Korea in a year and a half, and the World Cup is truly going to supersede it as hockey’s sole best-on-best competition, the league has to be very wary of losing what has made Olympic participation so magical the last 18 years.

The 2004 World Cup was a dud in large part due to the fact what became a year-long lockout was looming (and began days after Canada won). It is likely one of the most forgettable international events ever played.

This 2016 tournament wasn’t that, but it will certainly go down a mixed bag. It was a clear letdown from the last two Olympics, and it’s not an event that’s fully embraced by the public or players as an adequate replacement.

Fixing that will be a tall task, especially if Team Europe and Team North America are replaced by two hockey minnows that will struggle to compete four years from now.

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