If you weren't thoroughly entertained by Wednesday's exhibition of speed, skill and the fearless attack Team North America used to topple a powerful Team Sweden, we can't be friends.
Everyone from Wayne Gretzky to the most hardened hockey columnists acknowledged that this team of young guns, initially described as a gimmick, turned the World Cup of Hockey into world-class entertainment.
“Great hockey. The best game I've seen in a long time and one of the few games where the purpose was to put the puck in the other guys’ net,” said Hall of Famer Bob Clarke. “You're not supposed to try and check the other team to death...Who wants to watch that?”
Unfortunately, Finland wasn't able to do the young bucks a solid by beating the Russians, so we'll have to leave this World Cup of Hockey satisfied with what this injection of youth gave to what could have been a ho-hum international event.
Team North America created a buzz.
There's a strong chance the format that introduced Team North America and Team Europe to the world is a one-off. Nothing has been decided, and several conversations between the NHL and NHLPA and participating federations will have to take place, but that's the sense, as my colleague Pierre LeBrun noted Tuesday on SportsCentre's Insider Trading.
There’s no doubt the league and PA found lightning in a bottle. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, etc., are special players. While it's easy to predict the 23-and-under crop that could join forces in 2020 would be talented, it's unlikely they would be able to recreate the magic we witnessed in Toronto. And, if there are a few U.S-born players deemed elite, Team USA will likely lobby for their help. More on that in a minute.
Kudos to World Cup organizers for taking a chance and including a collection of players and coaches willing to fully display the offensive skill set of these young men. But the game they played in this event, as incredibly exciting as it was, is gone. There is no room for taking risks in the NHL and, as Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock told the media on Wednesday, winning is the only thing that matters.
“I like watching that team because there's tons of skill. I like winning more, though. I just want to win. That's what our players came for. They came to win.”
Canadian fans will cheer wildly if that happens. They just won't be perched on the edge of their seats in anticipation of multiple breakaways, odd-man rushes and scoring chances.
USA Hockey on the hot seat
In 1998, Canada failed to win a medal at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The Canadians lost in a shootout in the semi-finals to the Czech Republic before falling to Finland in the bronze-medal game. That was not how Hockey Canada or the star-studded cast of Canadian NHL players had envisioned their Olympic debut ending.
Team Canada general manager Bob Clarke wasted no time in advising Hockey Canada executives on the direction the program needed to head. Wayne Gretzky may not have been deemed worthy of a spot in the shootout against the Czechs, but Clarke knew Gretzky was the man to lead the team into Salt Lake City in 2002.
“I talked to Bob Nicholson and I said, ‘I shouldn't be returned...We got beat. In my opinion, the best player in Canada, the best player in the world, is Wayne Gretzky and he should be a huge part of this program. Who's better than 99? Whatever you're putting together, Gretzky has to be a part of it.’”
Hockey Canada took Clarke's advice and Team Canada won Olympic gold in Salt Lake in 2002 and World Cup gold in 2004 on Gretzky's watch before hitting a wall with a disastrous seventh-place finish at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. The torch was passed to Steve Yzerman who managed Canada to back-to-back Olympic Gold medals in 2010 and 2014.
Bob Nicholson, now the chief executive officer and vice chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, gives Clarke credit for reading the changes in the game in 1998 and recognizing that Gretzky, an iconic figure and recently retired player, could provide the details to enhance the experience for the players and design a winning roster.
Some believe USA Hockey has reached a point where it's time to think outside the box. Obviously, Dean Lombardi and his management wingers Brian Burke and Paul Holmgren feel they did that in building a team they believed would be best suited to neutralize Canada. The group knew it was a David-versus-Goliath task. Canada is viewed as a super team, and the architects of Team USA were hoping for an effort of biblical proportions to measure up.
They didn't get it. Not even close.
Is it time to turn the page? Should USA Hockey enlist management types not far removed from their playing days and a head coach who might bring a fresh approach and ideas? You can't argue with the level of experience of the staff USA Hockey brought to the World Cup, but it's going to take some time to wash the stink off of this letdown.
Reaction to the Americans’ disappointing performance at the World Cup has come from all corners. It has been cutting and personal, with former USA players criticizing or launching humorous jabs that missed the mark.
Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's executive director of hockey operations, isn't shying away from the criticism. He's not happy with the team’s performance — no one associated with Team USA is — but Johannson believes the media and those most vocal with their concerns may have had their minds made up before the tournament started.
“It feels like because they didn't believe in the roster we have here they were waiting for this to happen and then they were going to pounce. Obviously the team’s performance gave them that avenue and gave them that mode to voice that,” Johannson told the Dreger Report. “We all understand that can come with it, I just think on the inside it feels like two hockey games are an indictment of the program. Obviously, I don't think this is what that is, or the ultimate take away should be.”
Johannson doesn't see USA Hockey doing anything drastic in the near future. He still strongly believes in the program and remains very supportive of the management and coaching staff assembled in Toronto. When the time is right there will be a review of the World Cup failure, but it will be viewed as an opportunity to learn.
“I will sit with Dean and talk with Dean...I'll talk to Homer [Holmgren]...I'll talk with Burkie. I learn and grow from those guys every time I'm around an event like this and then I bring that forward to our organization,” he said.
Johannson also points out the importance of maintaining good relationships with NHL teams, executives and coaches. He says USA Hockey's connection to this group is as strong as it's ever been. He's very proud of that and doesn't see the benefit of a philosophical change in direction.
“They've been very supportive and helpful,” he said. “The partnership with the NHL is inclusive of the guys that are working in the NHL and running and managing teams and those are important relationships for not only the organization but for us to get the cooperation that we get for using their players...It's important.”
Johannson's top priority now is planning for the 2018 Olympics. He's very eager to learn the NHL's official position and is hopeful the league will declare its intentions no later than January. If the NHL remains a partner, he can go about his business and start considering team leaders, etc. However, if the NHL pulls the plug, much of his time will be invested in learning the rules, which players are eligible and what is the quickest way to introduce the players fully into the IOC program. Johannson will be a very busy man.
He leaves Toronto disappointed, but describes the World Cup of Hockey as a fantastic event and a great way to kick off another NHL season. He does have some parting thoughts on a format change he thinks should be considered for the future.
"In the end I'm supportive of it because there are more great players here,” he said. “There are 23 great stories on every team and the hockey fans are seeing the players they want to see. I completely support it in concept. It feels like the old world championships — if you lose the wrong game you're in such a dilemma right away. Obviously we didn't dig ourselves out of it in this one. There's also no reward in the preliminary round to winning, so I would hope there would be a [second place versus third place] play-in game that rewards somebody at the start here and then a first-game loss doesn't feel like death right away."
Look for the Dreger Report every Friday on TSN.ca.