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Team North America's Johnny Gaudreau (centre) celebrates his second goal with teammates Jonathan Drouin (left) and Aaron Ekblad (right) during third period pre-tournament World Cup of Hockey action Sunday, September 11, 2016 in Montreal.  (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Team North America's Johnny Gaudreau (centre) celebrates his second goal with teammates Jonathan Drouin (left) and Aaron Ekblad (right) during third period pre-tournament World Cup of Hockey action Sunday, September 11, 2016 in Montreal.
 

(Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Will Canadian hockey fans end up cheering against Team Canada? Add to ...

It’s not likely to happen – but it’s not entirely inconceivable, either.

Canadian hockey fans cheering against Team Canada?

It’s early in the relatively meaningless exhibition round of the World Cup, but there are still some things to be learned. And the most obvious has to be is the most-gimmicky team is for real.

Team North America – more often referred to as the Under-24s by the hockey world – is pretty damn good. The kids, as they’re also known, made easy work of Team Europe in two exhibition games last week. And while Team Europe – composed of players from Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and Slovenia – isn’t expected to be a factor, no one really knows what to expect from the kids.

They could fizzle; they could contend; they could … As the Globe and Mail’s Montreal sports reporter, Sean Gordon, put it in Monday’s paper, they’re “half high-speed circus, half hockey team.”

“Let’s face it,” Team Europe captain Anze Kopitar quickly conceded, “they’re faster than us.” And more skilled. And more ambitious.

Even before the pretend games got under way, the Under-24s’ cocky and super-quick centre Nathan MacKinnon was saying he’d put his team’s raw talents up against any of the other teams in the World Cup. Last year’s No.1 draft pick, Connor McDavid, is incredibly quick. The NHL’s fastest skater in the annual skills competition, Dylan Larkin, was a healthy scratch in Team North America’s 4-0 win over Team Europe Thursday night in Quebec City.

And MacKinnon, the other players all seem to agree, is probably the fastest player in the league when carrying a puck. MacKinnon’s four points in the two games have him tied for the scoring lead in the exhibition round.

There is no doubt that young players’ skills are highly attractive to fans. Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock said Monday that any time a coach is watching young prospects play the game, “all you’re looking for is skill. Skill, skill, skill. Not heart and determination and all that, but skill.”

So if the Under-24s can also find enough heart and determination, they should be a factor. But there is also another reason they could prove highly attractive to Canadian fans.

While Team Canada has, obviously, all Canadians dressing for it, only one skater (Shea Weber) and one goaltender (Carey Price) play in a Canadian NHL city. And in both cases that is Montreal.

Team North America, on the other hand, has a fine representation of Canadian NHL cities: Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and prospect Connor Hellebuyck from the Winnipeg Jets; Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from the Edmonton Oilers; Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames; and Morgan Rielly and 2016 No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There are also six more players who are Canadian but play for U.S.-based teams: Matt Murray from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Aaron Ekblad from the Florida Panthers, Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Colton Parayko from the St. Louis Blues, Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and MacKinnon.

MacKinnon comes from Sidney Crosby country, Cole Harbour and Halifax, and so there is yet another competitive factor that could come into some play with some fans – perhaps more than expected.

Team Canada will obviously still get those fans who see this contrived tournament as a struggle among countries for hockey supremacy, but a great many Canadian fans of the game – as opposed to fans of flags – will be cheering for speed, skill and good hockey … and may well end up rooting for the kids over the “official” team from Canada.

“There will be a lot of support there, that’s for sure,” said Team Canada’s Steven Stamkos Monday prior to the team departing for Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s exhibition match against Team Russia. “I guess we’ll see what happens [with the fans] when the time comes.”

“It’s something that’s never happened before,” said John Tavares, Team Canada’s top player in the first two exhibition matches. “So it will certainly be something to see.”

“I kind of figured they’d be a team that caught a lot of people by surprise,” added Team Canada defenceman Drew Doughty. “They’re good young players and they are playing with a lot of heart and pride. They’re going to try to beat everyone.”

Doughty marvels at the skill shown by the youngsters: “Young kids coming up nowadays, they’re doing a lot of things that the older guys wouldn’t have done growing up. So they’re coming in a lot more skilled than used to be [the case], but at the same time I think experience always wins out.”

We will have to see what happens. As for Stamkos, he can only chuckle at the prospect of a Team Canada-Team North America final and offer up his own opinion: “I’ll be cheering for Team Canada.”

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