Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

TORONTO — First it was Auston Matthews’ spell-binding move leading to a goal. Then it was Johnny Gaudreau’s speed earning him a penalty shot. Then it was Vincent Trocheck’s up-close shot producing another goal.

Just 95 seconds into Wednesday’s game, Team North America was up 2-0 on Team Sweden, which knew full well it was facing a speedy team but had absolutely no answer for it.

“I felt pretty old there, the first 10 minutes, to be honest with you,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “There’s a lot of speed on that team.”

There is a lot of speed. And excitement. And if we’re all lucky, there will be more Team North America hockey past Wednesday.

Team Sweden got past that sluggish start to force overtime, earning a semifinal-round berth before falling to North America, 4-3, in that extra time. And despite playing three great and entertaining games, it’s North America that’s on the verge of elimination. The team needs Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon to advance; Russia is the only squad to best North America, winning 4-3 in what was another exciting tilt.

Let’s just say this is as far as this team gets — and that’s likely the case — it’s still been damn fantastic to watch. Nobody expected this team to challenge the veterans, at least not to this degree. And maybe that lack of notoriety, and the expectations that come with it, is what Team North America needed.

“When you're coming into it with no pressure, you kind of just have fun and let the game flow out there,” said Brandon Saad, the former Blackhawks man/child who at 23 is Team North America’s elder statesman. “We have a lot of talent that can take over the game. The biggest thing is just having fun and letting our skill take over. We're in a pretty good start here.”

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Its finishing ability isn’t too shabby, either. Nathan MacKinnon’s dragging backhand winner against Henrik Lundqvist was a dazzling exclamation point on a 3-on-3 that had onlookers and Twitter abuzz.

“Just hearing the crowd when we won and seeing the fans when we won, it was really cool to be a part of this, a part of this team,” Mark Scheifele said. “Obviously you want to be a part of history, you want to be a part of that whole thing.”

We all knew Team North America was a talented bunch coming into the tournament. Just look at the roster: Gaudreau, MacKinnon, Matthews, Shayne Gostisbehere, Connor McDavid, etc. You expected to see speed and skill but not to this level. It’s been exhilarating hockey, and not many would object if it continued.

“I think we definitely have turned some heads,” McDavid said. “People didn't know what to expect when we came into this tournament, but we've beat two good hockey teams and ultimately maybe even should have beat the Russians. I think we've definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone what the future of the NHL is like. We're definitely excited about that.”

There are plenty who rue the fact that this team’s creation meant some of America’s hopefuls weren’t on Team USA, which was eliminated in a 4-2 loss to Team Canada on Tuesday night. I still say, right now, even with the kids Team USA wasn’t going to beat Team Canada. But the young Americans are a reminder that, while a window is closing on the current generation, the next group could mean a very bright future for U.S. hockey.

Team North America will be cheering for Team Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon. Those who have been dazzled while watching the kids might be doing the same. There’s no pressure for North America, and it’s playing accordingly. If it’s eliminated on Thursday, it’s nevertheless been one hell of an entertaining and energetic show.

Former Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery dies in early morning drowning

Former Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery dies in early morning drowning

Former Blackhawks goaltender Ray Emery was identified as the victim in an early morning drowning on Sunday at the Hamilton Harbour, Hamilton Police confirmed. He was 35.

According to the Hamilton Spectator, Emery and his friends jumped in the water around 6:30 a.m., but Emery never resurfaced. His body was recovered later in the afternoon.

Emery played in the NHL for 11 seasons, two of which came with the Blackhawks from 2011-13, where he served as a backup goaltender to Corey Crawford.

In 2013, he teammated up with Crawford to win the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltender(s) with the fewest goals against in a single season, before going on to capture his first Stanley Cup. During that season, Emery went 17-1-0 with a 1.94 goals against average, .922 save percentage and three shutouts.

The Blackhawks issued this statement following the confirmation:

The Chicago Blackhawks organization was deeply saddened to hear of Ray Emery’s passing. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. The Blackhawks will fondly remember Ray as a fierce competitor, a good teammate and a Stanley Cup champion.

The hockey community took to Twitter to offer their condolences when news began to spread:

Thank you, Marian Hossa: An ode to one of the best Blackhawks ever

Thank you, Marian Hossa: An ode to one of the best Blackhawks ever

When the Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane with the No. 1 pick the following year, it was a sign that the dark skies were clearing in Chicago. Things really started to change when Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman following the death of his father Bill in September of 2007, and one of the first decisions he made was to televise all 82 games.

The fans were coming back.

For only the second time in 11 years, the Blackhawks finished above .500 in 2007-08 but missed the playoffs by three points, a season in which Kane won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

The following year Joel Quenneville took over as head coach after only three games to provide some coaching experience behind the bench for a young team on the rise. It resulted in a 104-point season and ended in a Conference Finals berth at the hands of the arch-rival Detroit Red Wings in five games.

The Blackhawks were ready to make that step into championship contenders. They just needed someone to put them over the edge.

Enter Marian Hossa.

On July 1 of 2009, he committed to the Blackhawks for 12 years worth $62.8 million. He bought into the long-term vision and wanted to be a part of something special for many years to come.

Was he ever.

In his first game as a member of the Blackhawks, Hossa scored two goals in a 7-2 road victory against San Jose after missing the first month and a half of the season with a shoulder injury. It was at that moment where you saw what kind of powerhouse the Blackhawks could be and would become with a full lineup and future Hall of Fame winger added to a mixture of franchise-changing players scratching the surface.

Fast forward to Game 5 of the 2010 quarterfinals. You know how it goes. Series is tied 2-2. The Blackhawks trail 4-3 late in the third period. Extra attacker is on. How many times have we seen this? The Blackhawks were surely going to find a way to tie it up ... and then Hossa is sent to the box with 1:03 to play in regulation. A five-minute major boarding penalty.


Not so fast. 

Patrick Kane went on to score arguably the biggest goal in Blackhawks history, a shorthanded one that evened it up with 13.6 seconds to go. United Center is up for grabs. But there are still four minutes left to kill off on the penalty once overtime starts, which Hossa once called "the longest four minutes of my life." 

In a span of nine seconds following the penalty kill, Hossa jumped on the ice from the box, darted straight for the net and buried home what was the second-biggest goal in franchise history to put the Blackhawks up 3-2 in the series. Two nights later Hossa assisted on three goals and the Blackhawks eliminated the Nashville Predators in their barn.

The rest is history.

Who knows if the Blackhawks rally to win that series if they don't tie it up or win it in overtime. Who knows if they break through the next year. Who knows if that core group even remains together. The course of the franchise could've changed that night.

Instead, Hossa was handed the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career on June 9, 2010 from Jonathan Toews, who couldn't give it to him fast enough after he came up on the losing end in consecutive appearances with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and 2009.

Hossa would add two more titles to his résumé with the Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015, which almost certainly locked up his legacy as one of the all-time greats and his eventual next stop: The Hockey Hall of Fame. The wait was worth it.

"I was hoping to get one coming to Chicago and now I’ve got three," Hossa said following the 2015 Stanley Cup win. "What a feeling." 

The Blackhawks don't win three Stanley Cups without Hossa, who will go down as arguably the greatest free-agent signing in Chicago sports history.

On behalf of the city of Chicago: Thank you, 81.