Brandon Saad remembers the lineup looking pretty good from the start. The Blackhawks forward was considered an elder statesman on that 23-and-under Team North America but what the group lacked in experience it made up for in confidence.
“Right away when you looked at the roster and saw the speed and skill we had and we had success, whether it was exhibition or the real thing. We were a confident group right off the get-go,” Saad said. “Once we started winning games it just builds that confidence and you kind of get that swagger. We just had fun with it and we knew what we were capable of.”
The World Cup of Hockey wrapped up in Toronto last Sept. 29, with Team Canada winning another gold medal in another international competition. But it was Team North America that, despite not getting to the medal round, left the biggest impression. It’s high-skill, up-tempo style was exhilarating, not just for those who watched it but for those who were a part of that team.
“There was so much enthusiasm from the players that it made every practice, every team meeting, every game,” said former Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who was an assistant coach for North America. “I told a lot of people that game against Sweden one of the most fun game I was ever involved in. Any time you can coach not just young players but young elite players, it just made it real enjoyable for everybody.”
It wasn’t the most structurally sound team, especially on defense – as Saad said, “it wasn’t too strenuous. We had our structure and our game plan but a lot of it was just letting us run with it and be creative offensively.” Yeah, that style probably wouldn’t work long-term for an NHL squad. But considering the talent on that team – including Saad, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Jonathan Drouin – it was understandable that coaches just let them rely on their strengths.
“There were a couple of parameters of how we wanted to defend,” Tippett said. “But the main thing is if we used our skill to the best capability we could and force teams on their heels and we were able to do that a lot.”
Unfortunately, the skill, speed and overall dazzling play didn’t get them far enough. North America lost to Sweden in overtime on Sept. 21, denying them a shot in the knockout stage.
“Everybody was really looking forward to getting that one game against Canada and we didn’t make it by a point or whatever,” Tippett said. “But that one game against Canada before the best of three would’ve been a pretty exciting game.”
There will be a World Cup of Hockey in 2020 but will there be a Team North America? Considering how stellar it made the competition in 2016 it would be a shame if there wasn’t. Saad wouldn’t be eligible for it the next time – he’ll be 25 in late October – but he nevertheless hopes Team North America lives again.
“It was a unique situation for a lot of young players to get a chance to play, whether they wouldn’t play on the big squad or crossing over and playing with different countries,” he said. “It’s a pretty neat experience so I think it’s a pretty cool thing to continue going forward.”