The afternoon before they would formally begin sculpting Team Europe from scratch, four architects of the World Cup of Hockey’s biggest mystery, some of them having shaken hands for the first time, gathered in midtown Manhattan to consider the challenges ahead. There was the 23-man roster to compile, sourced not just from one or two nations like their seven competitors next September in Toronto, but from a dozen other European countries represented in the NHL this season. Duties needed assigning, jerseys needed choosing, training locations to finalize, an entire schedule to create. And how about the anthem for an entire continent? “After a few glasses of wine tonight, we’re going to write it,” one joked.
Right now, inside a conference room at NHL headquarters, curiosity and excitement were more available than actual answers. Thursday morning, the eight-man management team of Team Europe will begin their first meeting and start drawing the blueprint for this unknown project. The current group features president Franz Reindl, general manager Miroslav Satan, head coach Ralph Krueger and five scouts soon to be announced–Peter Bondra, Sean Burke, Lorne Henning, Vaclav Nedomansky and Ricky Olczyk. Few knew exactly what to expect.
“We started from scratch,” Reindl said. “We don’t have an organization behind us.”
“Right, like a month ago, it was just three of us, right?” Satan added. “And nothing else, no federation, nobody. We’ve mentioned it many times today. It’s basically brand-new thing. We’re basically a new creation.”
Fortunately, they have time. The initial 16-man roster isn’t due until March 1, leaving several months for Team Europe to form its plan, dispatch its scouts and figure out how to answer a question Burke put like this: “How are we going to bring together a group that’s never played together, and at the end of the day be able to go out there and compete against a lot of guys who have played together?” Take away the NHL players from Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland and Russia–the four European countries with individual teams–and a pool of more than 50 still remains, ranging from Germans (Christian Erhoff) to Danes (Frederik Andersen), Slovaks (Zdeno Chara) to Swiss (Roman Josi), plus one Slovenian (Anze Kopitar) and one Norwegian (Mats Zuccarello). Forming a unified identity will be a challenge, the concept of national pride stripped away. Gathering a fan base for perhaps the tournament’s biggest underdog, they hoped, would not.
“It might end up being eight, maybe 10 countries,” Satan said. “Even though probably some countries expected to have their own team, so when this was announced, maybe they felt a little bit of hesitation about supporting this team, but I think when they see the team we put together, it’ll be much stronger than their own national team, then they will have a chance to see their best players playing with the best players from the other countries together for the first time. I think that will create some excitement.”
“You only need that one Latvian on the team to have that incredible following,” Burke added, referring to Buffalo forward Zemgus Girgensons, who improbably led the entire league in All-Star voting last winter.
Like their counterparts with Team Canada, who met for the third time this week and have all but finalized their initial group of 16, the first step will involve penning ghost rosters. Satan wouldn’t rule out considering players from leagues outside the NHL, leaving room for a surprise to crop up overseas, but said those 50-plus players “will be our main focus.” Assistants for Krueger, a former bench boss with the Oilers who now works as director of Southampton F.C. in the English Premier League, have yet to be announced, and neither has next fall’s training location, though a league spokesman confirmed it will be held somewhere in North America. Scouting roles haven’t been assigned either, but among the staff only Olczyk, an assistant general manager with the Hurricanes, is currently employed by an NHL front office. The others are free for this pursuit alone.
“We have the time,” said Burke, a former Coyotes executive still based in Phoenix. “We have the ability to get out there, work as hard as any other management group and any coaching staff.”
The specifics, Reindl said, would be decided when the group reconvened Thursday morning, further questions best held until after such matters had been settled. “Then as soon as we reach this point, then we go deeper and deeper,” he said. For now, after a series of interviews, Reindl, Satan, Bondra and Burke left the offices for dinner in New York City, free for one more night before the construction began, maybe even to write an anthem if the wine flows right.
“We are curious, fans are curious, nobody knows how this is going to go,” Satan said. “But I think once we win the first game, maybe we will get big support. Once we make first splash, I think that will create excitement. We’ll see. That’s why it’s so exciting, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We are creators of that whole process.”
“It will be unique,” Bondra added.
“That’s what makes it interesting,” Satan said.