By Gordon Weigers, sports columnist
The World Cup is finally back, and the entire sports community is on edge waiting to see which country will come out as top dog.
Of course, the term “World Cup” leads many people to think of the great soccer tournament most recently held in Brazil in 2014 which was won by the heavily favored German men’s national team. This World Cup is different, however. For the first time in 12 years, the hockey world is coming together for a best-on-best tournament to ring in the new hockey season.
While the World Cup of Soccer gives teams from all over the globe a chance to win their way into the tournament, the World Cup of Hockey will feature only eight teams, hailing from the most powerful nations in the hockey universe. The contestants in this year’s tournament are the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and two new teams who have never competed on the international stage: Team North America and Team Europe. Team North America will feature players from the U.S. and Canada who are under 23 years old. Team Europe is comprised of players from European nations that are not being individually represented.
In recent international hockey tournaments, the United States hasn’t lived up to expectations, given its star-studded lineup of NHL stars. The wheels seem to fall off the train for some players when they trade their professional jerseys in for the red, white and blue. Players like Patrick Kane and James van Riemsdyk, who are used to lighting the lamp often in the NHL, struggled to produce in the last two Olympics and will be turned to for scoring in this tournament.
This year’s squad of Americans has a slightly different look than those of past tournaments. Gone are the goal scorers like Bobby Ryan, and in their places are grittier players like Brandon Dubinsky and Justin Abdelkader. The World Cup will show whether the Americans should’ve brought more firepower in their lineup – or if the balanced attack will help the team win.
Teams like Canada and Sweden have found great success in recent international competition, including the Olympic Games and the annual International Ice Hockey Federation World Hockey Championships. On paper, it’s hard to find many differences between the two teams, save for their geography. Both teams feature groups of experienced, high-octane forwards that should find no trouble putting the puck in the net. On the back end, both teams have perennial Norris Trophy candidates up and down their depth charts.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that these two countries have remarkable goaltenders between the pipes. For Sweden, it comes down to if Henrik Lundqvist can bounce back after a subpar year with the New York Rangers a season ago. The Canadians will likely turn to former NHL MVP and Montreal golden boy Carey Price. Price missed almost all of last season due to injury, so it will be interesting to see if he can return to the level that he was at during the 2014-15 season when he was, by far, the best player in the NHL.
I’m sure that the big brains making the rosters for Team USA and Team Canada were upset at the fact that they couldn’t add any players under 23 to their respective teams. Some of the most recognizable names in the NHL today in the dawn of their careers will be teaming up for Team North America and are poised to do some damage in the tournament. The speed of young guns such as Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and former Northeastern killers Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau give this young team a huge edge over the other teams in the field.
You have to consider that this tournament is happening before the NHL season kicks off. This means older players haven’t had the necessary time to get in the kind of form that they would need to be in to win an event like this. Team North America is a top-to-bottom team full of excited players who used their summers to train to get better, whereas many of the older players used their summers to recover from the long year that, for some, ended in June. If the team’s goaltending holds up, I think that the potent offense of Team North America will carry them to the title.
Selective games of the preliminary round, as well as all of the playoff rounds, will be aired on the networks of ESPN. The World Cup officially begins with the group stage on Sept. 17, and ends on Oct. 1. And so our watch begins.
-Gordon Weigers can be reached at Sports@HuntNewsNU.com