Moments after Team North America won Wednesday’s thriller over Sweden in its final round-robin game of the World Cup, Nathan MacKinnon was basking in the glow of scoring the overtime game-winner, preparing to do a television interview.
Unaware of the permutations and complexities of the World Cup tie-breaking system, MacKinnon figured the victory was enough to get his team into the semi-final round.
After all, it had a 2-1 record and except for a short lapse against Russia in its only loss, a close 4-3 decision, Team North America was exceptional – fun to watch and difficult to defend.
Unhappily for MacKinnon and his teammates, head-to-head record was the critical decider, a fact that permitted the Russians, who also finished 2-1, to advance.
The team that had wowed hockey fans with its high-paced, run-and-gun style of play was out, the disappointed players dispersing to their various NHL training camps Friday.
If artistic merit counted for anything in hockey, the young players would still be playing. Sadly, it doesn’t.
So as Canada prepares to play Russia in the first semi-final Saturday, which will be followed by a Sweden-Europe match in the second semi-final Sunday, all that’s left for Team North America to ponder is if its crowd-pleasing brand of hockey has earned it a place in future World Cups.
In the broad-strokes brainstorming about hockey’s international future, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association only ever imagined the presence of an under-24 team and a European all-star team as a one-off – for the 2016 World Cup alone.
For 2020, they had tentatively planned to return to a more traditional eight-nation event, with a play-in round for the final two spots. So that would give the likes of Slovakia and Slovenia, Switzerland and Denmark, all a chance to field their own teams, rather than band together as Team Europe. Good for the Swiss and the Slovenes, maybe, but would that enhance interest in the event for the larger audience, who fell in love with the daring approach of the Young Guns?
In some ways, the Team North America concept worked almost too well. Privately, there has been some grousing within the American camp, after a 0-3 tournament, because the United States might have had a better shot at success if it had access to some of its young emerging stars who put on such a show – players such as Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Shayne Gostisbehere.
An under-24 team, with the same ground rules, would also have implications for Canada’s senior team four years from now. Connor McDavid, for example, would still be young enough to play for the Young Stars in 2020. Given his possible career trajectory, McDavid might be one of Canada’s top players at the senior level by then.
So there are some logistical problems that they’ll need to work through – but also some obvious solutions that potentially would make everybody happy.
Maybe they can put in a rule that if a player plays for the under-24 team once, he can’t play for it a second time.
Maybe they can give the senior U.S. and Canadian men’s teams’ first chance to pick whoever they want from their overall player pool, even if they’re under 24, and then you build a Young Guns team from the rest.
Of course, if you did that, then you’d run the risk of making the North American team less competitive – and would defeat the whole purpose of having it in the tournament in the first place.
The NHL and the NHLPA will wait until the event is over and then do a lengthy debrief, dissecting what went right, and what went wrong.
Television ratings will play a large part in determining which direction to go. If the ratings support the view that Team North America had captured the imagination of the viewing public (and slip a little now that it is out) that will factor heavily into the decision about 2020.
“If I get a vote I’d like to do it again,” said Todd McLellan, North America’s coach. “We’ve proven that this young generation can play with the older ones. We’ve been very entertaining. I think if you surveyed 99 out of 100 fans they’d probably say, ‘Put them in again.’”
So McLellan gets to cast the first affirmative vote. If the masses join in and there is a genuine public outcry to support the retention of the Young Guns concept, you’d have to think the NHL and the players’ association would listen – and find a way of negotiating the necessary tweaks to keep everybody happy.
The North American team may have started as a gimmick, but the way it played forced the naysayers to come around. You’d have to think it would be difficult for them now to jettison something that worked so well. It just doesn’t happen all that often.Report Typo/Error