As they gathered for a welcome cocktail reception early last September, the scene looked less like a pantheon of sparkling NHL talent than some awkward high school prom.
On one side of the rooftop patio stood 11 Canadians, schmoozing and reminiscing about their major junior days. Opposite them at the Montreal hotel clustered 12 Americans, mingling with fellow products of the national development program or college ranks. They were all on the same team, brought together to represent youth more than national pride. Not that any passersby would’ve guessed at the time.
“It was weird,” remembers Nathan MacKinnon, the Nova Scotia native and Colorado forward who fell on the northern side of the unbroken ice. “We looked at them like, ‘Yeah, we should probably talk to each other.’”
One year later, the creation of Team North America remains a singular experiment with unforgettable results. Twenty-three players spanning two nations, each younger than 23 years old, delivered as promised at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. That they finished shy of the knockout round, eliminated from the group stage on a tiebreaker with Russia, surely robbed viewers of more turbocharged speed and breathtaking skill. But while the roster scattered after less than three weeks, returning to training camps for the upcoming season yet far closer as friends than they seemed on that rooftop patio, the memories remain fully fresh.
“Man, that’s probably the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” Columbus defenseman Seth Jones says. “So much skill, so fun to watch.”
“It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had, being able to play with that many skilled players, that many guys who are fast and dangerous like that,” says Edmonton center Connor McDavid. “Definitely a treat.”
“I do still think about it all the time,” says Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. “Just how fun it was.”
In retrospect, the lineup somehow looks even more loaded. It was captained by McDavid, who would lead the NHL with 100 points and become the youngest league MVP since Sidney Crosby. Three of the past Calder Trophy winners—Auston Matthews (‘16-17), Aaron Ekblad (‘14-15) and MacKinnon (‘13-14)—donned the sleek, sweet orange logo. So did the past three winners of the annual fastest skater competition (McDavid, Dylan Larkin and Jonathan Drouin), and six participants at the 2017 All-Star Game (Jones, Matthews, McDavid, MacKinnon, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Florida’s Vincent Trocheck). They left fans delirious, opponents equally exhausted and impressed.
“They played amazing hockey,” says Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson. “A lot of running and gunning, which is fun to play for players and people to watch. Not so much coaches. They did as good a job as they could with the young team that they had. The only thing they were lacking was experience. Other than that, they were just as good as any other nation there.”
Of course, this was perfectly obvious early on. Before their first pre-tournament practice in Montreal, Buffalo forward Jack Eichel remembers seeing coach Todd McLellan’s lineup on the whiteboard and simply thinking, “Wow.” Upon hitting the rink, Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gotisbehere remembers finding teammate Sean Couturier and whispering, “Our team is so f---ing fast.” Gaudreau’s reaction was only slightly less profane: “Holy crap, there are some good players on the ice.”
The results were no less thrilling. In three round-robin games, Team North America outscored its opponents 11-8 and outshot them 138-88. Matched against the world’s top three European teams, according to the latest IIHF rankings, the so-called “Young Guns” bludgeoned Finland 4-1, fell short of a massive comeback against Russia 4-3, and topped Sweden by the same score in overtime. Not bad for a squad whose pre-tournament planning consisted entirely of a few conference calls from McLellan to talk strategy and expectations.
“There’s so much good diversity in the league when it comes to superstars around different teams right now,” Jones says. “It sucked it ended the way it did, but it was so crazy to see all of them on one team.”
They produced highlights like Matthews stickhandling from his knees against Sweden and then cleaning up the rebound for his second strike of the tournament. And MacKinnon dragging the puck around goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s pokecheck before roofing the golden goal from his backhand. And Gaudreau’s leaping redirection of defenseman Colton Parayko’s point shot against Finland. And the odd-man rush against Russia between McDavid and Matthews, a supersonic collaboration between the two biggest superstars in Canada right now.
“We had our structure, but the coaches started to realize that we had some speed, we had guys that had a lot of skill and we were just going to play to our strengths,” Scheifele says. “We were young and wanted to have fun and love the game of hockey. I think that carried onto the ice.”
The NHL previously announced its intention to continue the World Cup in 2020, but it’s unlikely the Young Guns will reload. Under the most recent rules, for instance, McDavid and Matthews would be required to dress for Team North America again, and not their native Canada and United States. “You’re definitely well aware that it’s the first time it’s ever happened,” says McDavid. “And I would say probably it’s never going to happen again.”
When their run at the tournament in Toronto ended, the players gathered again for another dinner. This time there was no awkwardness, no national boundaries. “We were all young guys, so we were having a blast,” Gaudreau says. “We were together for 25 days, playing hockey, going to dinner, having fun, hanging out. It was pretty special to see how close we all came together as a team. I’ll remember that.”
And if not, everyone flew home with plenty of souvenirs. Larkin and Gostisbehere both plan to frame their signed jerseys. Scheifele and Jones came away with autographed sticks; the latter currently keeps his stashed away in his family garage. For their attendance at a fan event, Gaudreau and Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly were allowed to take anything off the racks. “So we grabbed the McDavid and Eichel jerseys and threw them on,” Gaudreau says. “I wore McDavid, he got Eichel. We flip-flopped Canadians and Americans.”
And when Eichel began training this summer, he wasn’t wearing Sabres gear on the ice but the Team North America gloves and helmet. “Why not?” he says. “It was just a blast.”