Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS
Tomorrow marks the beginning of a best-of-three series to decide which of Team Canada or Team Europe will take the 2016 Wolrd Cup of Hockey’s trophy home to their country or continent. As it stands, the Canadians are the overwhelming favourites, having not lost a meaningful best-on-best game since the round robins of the 2010 Olympics and already having beaten Europe 4-1 earlier in this tournament.
Certainly, there’s a natural instinct to cheer for the country that most of us call home. But wouldn’t it be great if their opponents made it interesting, if not fully upset the host nation?
First, we have to state the obvious. As much as the object of the game is to win, not entertain, Team Canada is boring. They play an extremely structured game that’s based heavily on a perimeter cycle and high danger scoring chance (read: rebound) generation and it only really looks pretty if Sidney Crosby wants to shave a second off the play. Due to Canada’s absurd depth, they’re basically running four lines that could be the top line of any other nation, with defencemen who can simultaneously be debated as the right choices but still be the best (or at absolute worst, best other than Sweden), in the tournament.
That’s not to say that Team Europe has the free-flowing attitude and entertainment value of the oh-so-loveable Team North America, who went on a week long crusade to save hockey as we know it and came up short due to a couple of questionable coaching decisions. But at least they aren’t the team that harnesses the best collection of talent on the planet and uses them to smother you with structure, rather than dazzle you with skill.
Europe with arguably the most adorable overtime celebration in hockey history pic.twitter.com/tT3mS06hGw
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 25, 2016
As well, there’s something very unique about Team Europe’s approach to national pride. With every goal they score, The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blares from the speakers, a nod to the eight countries represented on their roster (sorry, Anze Kopitar; for those few seconds, Slovenia still doesn’t count). The fact that the team is a collaboration of so many different nations has cheapened their value to some, but in a way, it should work the opposite way.
For these players, it’s the only time that they’ll ever get a serious shot at keeping up with the powerhouses. Sure, the Swiss and Slovak representatives have had their somewhat serious kicks at the can, but even they’ve never been favourites. For players like Tomas Vanek of Austria and Mats Zuccarello of Norway, victory in a game against Canada would mean losing by single digits.
Now, together, these players who beat the odds of their homelands hockey history just to make it to the NHL have played well enough to upset some very serious hockey countries and have the capability to at least somewhat keep up with Canada. They’ve got their birth countries on their shoulders, and those countries are supporting them right back, knowing that their program at least somewhat contributed to the process. Ralph Kreuger feels that the pride that comes from it is a different kind, and potentially even greater one:
“Well, everybody thought that having eight different countries was going to be an Achilles and that we had no chance to play here as a result of that,” said the Team Europe head coach. “I said right from the start that these are all National Hockey League players, and why it means a lot to them is all of them had to do something special to get into the National Hockey League. They wouldn’t be here; Mats Zuccarello came in late, Mark Streit came in late, players like that who had to fight their way in because they were from countries that weren’t respected in terms of producing NHL players. 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 with amazing experience and eight Stanley Cup rings, and it’s just coming together, and it’s certainly for us an advantage.”
On that note, what about Kreuger himself? He’s another person worth rallying for. This tournament has been a bit of a re-appearance party for a bench boss who appeared to get an unfair shake in the NHL. After years of building up his name in Europe both on the ice and on the bench, Kreuger joined the Edmonton Oilers and became their head coach during the 2012/13 stub year. In that season, the team posted a 19-22-7 record; still underwhelming, but their best in the past seven years. Rather than being given a chance to build on it, Kreuger was fired (via Skype call, no less) faster than anybody in Edmonton in the cap era, and the team hasn’t gotten any closer to the playoff since.
Kreuger quickly took on a role with Hockey Canada as part of their Sochi Olympics coaching staff, offered to him by current Canadian coach Mike Babcock; a person he would bond quickly with. “We would run together. We would speak about hockey nonstop together, and it was the best coaching clinic I could go through with Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Mike Babcock,” said Kreuger. “From the draft in New York right through the Olympic Games I was with them.”
Now, Kreuger gets a chance to take on the country he was born and raised in, a team he helped build the framework of two years ago, and a coach who took him under his wing in a rock bottom moment. With him, he has a team that best reflects his come up; an unconventional mashup of European experience. It couldn’t be any more fitting.
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 25, 2016
There are other fun story angles to cover here, that we wouldn’t have gotten from a Sochi rematch of Sweden/Canada.
We get Jaroslav Halak vs. Carey Price between the pipes, which was one of the great debates in hockey when Halak stole the starters job in Montreal in 2009/10 and brought a team destined to go nowhere in the playoffs to the Eastern Conference Finals.
We get international swan songs for the likes of Marian Hossa (37), Zdeno Chara (39), Dennis Seidenberg (35), Mark Streit (38), Marian Gaborik (34), and Christian Ehrhoff (34).
We get further proof that experimenting with the teams can lead to intriguing things; and maybe, like Europe showed by impressing after a rough pre-tournament start against the North Americans, they can “fool us all” by playing significantly better and closer hockey in their second crack against Canada.
Admittedly, it’s very hard to find a truly intriguing finalist for Canada to be taking on. They’re simply in a league of their own right now, and while them losing isn’t entirely out of the question, the idea of them being outplayed along the way sounds like a pipedream.
But you know what? Europe is a good kind of weird, and a perfect underdog. Sure, you want your home country to win, but I hope it’s not cruise control. I hope these guys give them hell, and honestly, I won’t be too mad if they pull off the upset.