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Team Canada players line up for a team photo before a training session ahead of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto on Friday, September 16, 2016. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Canada players line up for a team photo before a training session ahead of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto on Friday, September 16, 2016. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Will Team North America save the World Cup of Hockey? Add to ...

No one at the NHL’s head office seems to recall precisely where the idea came from or who first brought it up. But Bill Daly believes that its origins are more than a decade old.

Back then, the NHL was still debating what to do about Olympic participation, with the Games in Turin, Italy, and interrupting their season yet again. One concept that was kicked around briefly was sending only 23-and-under players – the way men’s soccer teams do for the Olympics – instead of shutting down the entire league.

That never ended up happening. But the idea lay dormant at the NHL front office until the summer of 2014, when commissioner Gary Bettman, his right-hand man, Daly, and NHL Players’ Association head Don Fehr began discussing the format for a revamped World Cup of Hockey.

They knew that six countries would be there – Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic – but the next two entries were up in the air. The goals they came up with for the event were to (a) include as many NHL players as possible, preferably drawing all 184 from within the league, and (b) to avoid the ugly blowouts that have plagued almost every recent international hockey tournament.

With those guidelines, it was thrown to Kris King, NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations, and NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider to lead the way with some concept teams. Dozens of options were pondered, including having A and B teams for both Canada and the United States.

Ultimately, however, a team of “young guns” – the way the NHL had attempted at various All-Star Games from 2002 to 2009 with YoungStars teams – had staying power.

Thus, Team North America was born.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, by any means,” said Schneider, who had the job of explaining the idea to concerned young players like Aaron Ekblad at the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. “We waffled back and forth several times. In the end, we decided we wanted to have the best players in the world on the ice. This is our tournament. We have a chance to do that.

“We knew we had the six core teams. We even discussed going with six, but we didn’t really like the idea that so many great players wouldn’t get the opportunity to play. So we started to really analyze it as a best-on-best tournament and putting together eight teams.

“We looked at what soccer does in the Olympics [with 23-and-under players] and that was kind of the idea that spurred that. When we saw the roster, that’s when we were like ‘Holy cow – these guys have a really good team.’ But, to be honest, the first couple guys we talked to, until we showed them what the roster might look like, they said, ‘We don’t want to show up and be embarrassed at the thing.’”

From the beginning, the notion of resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey has had its critics and skeptics. This is an event that has been held only once in the past 20 years: A 2004 tournament that had the feeling of an underwhelming cash grab, a series of forgettable exhibition games that were overshadowed by the looming lockout.

So when the NHL announced last September that the tournament would return with an unusual format, with two invented teams – North America and Team Europe, the backlash was predictable.

What wasn’t was how quickly minds have changed once they hit the ice.

The 2016 edition of the World Cup of Hockey gets going in earnest on Saturday in Toronto, but the preliminary-round games have offered a glimpse of what is to come. The hockey has been surprisingly competitive, with players already shifting into something resembling a top gear. Most of the buzz around the tournament, however, has been about Team North America, after lopsided wins over Europe were filled with highlight-reel plays by teenagers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews.

While Team Canada’s exhibition games have had the highest TV ratings in this country, North America’s are not far behind, with nearly 600,000 viewers watching each of their tune-up wins. Meanwhile, tickets to see the young guns are in heavy demand on the secondary market, far surpassing that of any non-Canadian team.

Early indications are that the team many believed would hurt the World Cup’s credibility will instead be what makes it memorable, bringing in an audience anxious to see the top young players in the world play against the veterans.

“These guys can play,” King said. “Not that we’re surprised. But the way they play together is pretty neat. It’s going to make for an interesting tournament. It looks like it’s going to work. And they’ve become the adopted team for the younger people that I talk to. Of course, Canada’s going to be the team that their dads are going to cheer for, but I think the kids are cheering for North America.”

“It’s new; it’s exciting,” Team North America forward Brandon Saad said. “Having us combined, players from the U.S. and Canada, a lot of people want to watch it. Usually, we’re the guys facing off against each other [at the world juniors]. To get us on the same team, I think it’s exciting for the fans. I know we’re all enjoying it.”

The NHL has long hoped to bottle the youthful enthusiasm of an event like the World Junior Championships. But selling a sexier brand of international hockey has been difficult with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation having full control over the Olympics and world tournaments. Tradition has set the format.

And part of what makes embracing the 23-and-under concept compelling is that it fits with the larger trend of what’s happening in the league. Young players are having a bigger impact in the NHL than ever – the average age of the top 50 scorers has dropped by more than a year in the past decade, down to 26.9 – and they are being rewarded with bigger contracts than ever as a result.

One-quarter of the goals scored in the NHL last season were by players under 24 years old, including dozens who hit the 20-goal mark.

“A lot of the guys on the team are top scorers in the league,” said North America’s Vincent Trocheck, who had 25 for the Florida Panthers last season.

“We’re extremely fortunate that the timing is right to have this team,” Schneider admitted, noting that this is the first time in several hockey generations where a group this young will be competitive against the world’s best. “You might have to go back to [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mark] Messier and those guys when they came in with the Edmonton Oilers, really.”

Veteran players offered different theories why young players seem better prepared for the NHL these days. Canada’s Ryan Getzlaf mused that the fact more kids are one-sport athletes could be a factor. Team USA’s James van Riemsdyk believes it’s better training and conditioning early on in their development.

Canadian captain Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, praised their terrific skating skills and confidence.

“I think the courage that young people have today is a little bit different,” North America coach Todd McLellan said of his team. “They’re breaking down the old-school barriers. They aren’t quite as respectful of the elder player – and I mean that the right way. They respect the game, and the older players in the game, but they have a little more courage to go out and play against them. Where that came from, I don’t know, but I sense that. They have courage to make some riskier plays in the game.”

Risk has been a theme of McLellan’s as he talked about his team this week, leading up to their first game that counts on Sunday against Finland. North America’s coaching staff is concerned that their players’ penchant for great offensive plays will bite them defensively, which could be deadly in a short tournament where every goal matters.

They realize that their team is in tough as it is. For the young guns to advance out of their group, they’ll have to finish ahead of two of Russia, Sweden and Finland – three major hockey powers filled with veteran NHL players.

If they manage that, however, they will likely get a date with either Canada or the United States in a do-or-die semi-final next weekend. Several North America players admitted that having the chance to eliminate their home country, up against some of their idols, would be strange.

But they can’t wait to try.

“That’s what we’re striving for – to be able to play against them,” Saad said. “It’ll be a little weird I’m sure, but at the same time, we want to win. That would be a lot of fun to be part of.”

It could go down in history as the one and only time it happens, too. Neither the NHL nor the NHLPA will commit to the idea that a successful tournament for North America would mean a return in 2020 at the next World Cup.

The stated goal, at this point, is to hold a qualifying tournament in 2019 to fill in the seventh and eighth seeds, which would mean international minnows like Slovakia, Switzerland, Latvia and Germany may return to the event. The young guns would be one and done.

That, however, remains on the distant horizon. For now, the organizers who came up with this format are anxious to see if fans continue to get behind their concept, a controversial idea that has won a lot of converts already.

“These are the guys that are the future of the game,” Schneider said. “If they can put together a magic tournament, it’s a great story.”

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