When the World Cup of Hockey was announced with two teams that aren't actually countries, many - including me - snickered at the idea. Adding a team of players from the European countries that didn't get invited and pulling players away from Canada and the U.S. to form a 23-and-under team quashed any notion that the league had the purity of international hockey in mind.
As a big fan of international hockey, the idea seemed almost offensive at the time. Not only that, but if you didn't stop to think about some of the players that were eligible for Team North America, the initial belief from many corners of the hockey world was that the kids were going to get smoked.
Then we went through all of last season in the NHL and when Team North America's final roster was announced, it became immediately apparent that this was no pushover team. The 23-and-under players in the NHL are of exceptional caliber. This team might not have the total depth of Canada or Sweden, or maybe a few other teams, but they're actually good. Really good.
In their first exhibition game Thursday night, they skated circles around Team Europe for a 4-0 win in Quebec City. It was a pretty solid opening statement to let the rest of the teams in the tournament to take notice.
One of the fun parts of international events and one of the main reasons even casual fans get sucked into these kinds of tournaments is the flag-waving that goes along with it. The national pride angle is compelling enough for a lot of people to tune in. However, Team North America isn't a specific national team and not only that, the two countries players hail from have actual national teams in the tournament.
That is going to cause some conflict among fans of this tournament. Do you root for your country without exception? Or do you root for the young guns?
To try and help you answer that question if you're one of the many conflicted fans out there, here are five reasons why it's totally acceptable, and maybe even advisable to jump on Team North America's bandwagon.
1. Connor McDavid! Jack Eichel! Auston Matthews! Johnny Hockey! But wait, there's more!
This team very much is the future of the league. Connor McDavid is going to be the face of the NHL someday soon, while Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel are two of the most exciting young Americans to enter the NHL in years. These, among many of their teammates for the World Cup, are the guys who will be taking the game to another level over the course of their careers.
They have five of the last six first overall picks on this team. Three of them were on one line in Thursday night's exhibition game against Europe, including Nathan MacKinnon, who scored two goals. One of them came on a penalty shot where he did this.
Poor Jaroslav Halak. No chance. And the lineup is full of guys who can do things just like that.
You can look up and down the lineup and there's so much to like. Johnny Gaudreau and Jonathan Drouin are the top two left wings and already among the most entertaining puck-handlers in the league. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere is their power-play quarterback and a terror all over the ice. Aaron Ekblad is the steady No. 1 defenseman as a 15-year veteran inside a 20-year-old body. The presumptive No. 1 goalie, Matt Murray, already has a Stanley Cup. Top-six forward Brandon Saad already has two.
They may be young, but these guys are going to be so fun to watch.
2. Their youthful bravado is contagious
These guys are viewed as the underdog, but they know they're talented enough to defy the odds. When the team arrived in Montreal for their training camp, there was a swagger about them. They clearly have higher expectations of themselves than most everybody else.
Here's a sampling of some of their quotes:
Nathan MacKinnon to NHL.com: "I don't think there's another more skilled team than ours. I'll go against anybody's roster and put ours against them, and for speed and skill, you know, this isn't a full season or a playoffs, this is one-and-done, and we have the talent and ability to beat anybody, for sure."
That's the exact kind of attitude this team needs to have to be successful. They really believe they can shock the world.
3. They are undoubtedly the fastest team in this tournament
This team's ability to skate is what separates them from the pack. They are going to be faster than everyone. Nathan MacKinnon, Dylan Larkin, Connor McDavid, Shayne Gostisbehere, Auston Matthews and on and on and on, they can all skate.
You have to be able to combine speed with smarts and skill to make the plays necessary to make it work, but they can do that, too. This is going to be a team that gets behind defensemen and can burn the opposition in transition. The NHL is more and more becoming a rush league and these guys are going to be able to rush as well as any team in the tournament
We saw how big a factor speed played in the Penguins' Stanley Cup run and we saw this North America team make Team Europe look like they were standing still in the first exhibition. Every team is going to have to bring their best when they play North America or they're going to get torched.
4. You'd still be cheering for Canada or USA, kind of
Maybe you fancy yourself a patriot and can't root against the U.S. or Canada. But if you decide to cheer for Team North America, you're not really turning your back on your country. All of the kids are either American or Canadian, just like you. And as far as continents go, North America is a pretty good one.
They're still going to play both the U.S. and Canadian anthems before North America's games, too. On top of that, the soonest Team NA has to play Canada or the U.S. is during the semifinals, assuming they all make it. Considering that USA and Canada's most common secondary rival is Russia, that prelim-round game between North America and the Russians could be really great.
5. If they make the semis it's basically the plot for D3: The Mighty Ducks
The way this tournament was set up, Canada and the U.S. look to be in pretty good shape to make the semifinals. The same cannot be said for Team North America. They have to finish at least in second place in a group that includes Sweden, Finland and Russia. That is a pretty tall order, but not out of the question.
If they do make it, this will be just like when The Mighty Ducks enrolled in Eden Hall prep school on junior varsity hockey scholarships. The entire movie built up to the "JV-Varsity Showdown" (which weirdly featured color commentary from NHL great Paul Kariya). You see, the varsity really didn't like the JV kids coming in and thinking they were all great because they beat Iceland at the Junior Goodwill Games.
The Team North America kids have not one, but two varsity squads to potentially take on.
The JV isn't supposed to beat the varsity, but in this instance, it would be pretty incredible to see the North America kids go toe-to-toe with the best veteran players from their respective countries. They have enough talent to give the U.S. or Canada a run for their money. And as we all learned from Charlie Conway and Greg Goldberg, who (spoiler alert) converted from goalie to forward, sometimes the JV does beat the varsity.
And if Team North America somehow managed to beat one of the U.S. or Canada in a semifinal, we may never see a 23U team again, so there's that, too.
It may have started as a gimmick, but it's a pretty darn good gimmick.