TORONTO — The fastest show on ice is the biggest attraction at the World Cup of Hockey.
Team North America is made up of the best 23-and-under American and Canadian players, a combination of speed and skill that captivates even the most old-school of hockey people. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said North America has “captured people’s imaginations” before the real games even started.
No one is more spectacular than Connor McDavid, the 19-year-old generational talent who could soon be the face of the NHL. The World Cup is an introduction to many of the game’s best young stars but especially McDavid, who could slip into anonymity in Edmonton but will be front and center at this tournament for fans in the U.S. and around the world.
“In a short period of time, because it’s a worldwide stage, they’re going to see Connor and what he can do,” said Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli, who helped build Team North America. “He’ll be with his peers, so it’ll be even more fun to watch. World-class talent. He’s getting better every day. I’m excited to see it at this level, too.”
Team North America is the buzz of the World Cup after making opponents look like they were skating in mud during exhibition play. It features five of the past six No. 1 picks: Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs (2016), McDavid of the Oilers (2015), Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers (2014), Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche (2013) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Oilers (2012).
Add in 2015 No. 2 pick Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau and North America is not a team to overlook. Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger called North America “the fastest team in the tournament,” and don’t expect anyone to offer an argument.
“That was an amazing sight to see these kids in action together,” Krueger said after losing two exhibition games to those kids. “What an unbelievable future the National Hockey League has with these players has with these players around the league.”
The future could be downright absurd. Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player on the planet in the present, but it’s not a stretch to think McDavid is next to claim that honor in the very near future.
A finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year despite missing three months with injury, McDavid was a point-a-game player as a teenager. All the hype around him may not even be enough, and by the day more hockey people are gaining an appreciation of what McDavid can do.
“You hear a lot about him from the outside, and it’s fun to watch him play,” said Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, who’s a part of North America’s management staff. “Incredibly talented player, exciting to watch. I think the sky’s the limit as far as what he can do. … He’s going to be a great player in this game for a long time.”
McDavid is already a great player, and North America coach Todd McLellan is spicing up his team’s opener Sunday against Finland by putting him on a line with Matthews. Even though Matthews is only eight months younger, he understands playing with McDavid is a rare opportunity.
“He thinks the game extremely fast. He makes quick, fast decisions,” Matthews said. “He’s a special player. He can do a lot of things at a pace that not many people can do.”
McDavid said North America doesn’t have a shortage of speed and likely won’t struggle to score goals. He acknowledged the job will be to defend well and keep the puck out of the net against more experienced competition.
But North America was designed to showcase the most exciting elements of hockey.
“Their speed stands out, they’re confident,” Crosby said. “To be at their age and have the success that they do, you don’t have that without confidence and obviously skill. They have a good combination of that. I think they respect their opponent, but not too much, so you have to be ready for them.”
Opponents are ready and so is McDavid, North America’s captain at 19 who led Canada to world junior gold at Air Canada Centre 20 months ago. Back in the same building, the spotlight is on McDavid, who shines when the competition level rises.
“Anytime the world’s best play against the world’s best, it always brings out the best hockey,” McDavid said. “It’s a good opportunity for our whole team and myself personally to make a real name for ourselves and put a real statement on what the future may hold for all of us and myself. We definitely have a good opportunity ahead of us.”
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