TORONTO — After winning gold with Canada at the Sochi Olympics, Peter Chiarelli is now tasked with putting together a team to beat Canada when it matters most at the World Cup of Hockey.
Chiarelli and Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman will manage Team North America, which will include Canadian and American players age 23 and under.
“We’re just real happy having Peter and Stan leading our charge, if you will, from that point of view,” Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said. “Because of that we certainly think that that team will be more than competitive and put the fear of God into the other teams because of their preparation and because of that type of leadership that we’re looking for.”
With the return of the World Cup just over a year away, Chiarelli and Bowman have two of the most intriguing jobs around, putting together a team that could include the past four No. 1 picks in Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins along with the likes of Jack Eichel and two-time Stanley Cup-winner Brandon Saad.
At the NHL and NHLPA’s news conference revealing more details about the World Cup, the young Team North America had the most people talking.
“As the older guys in the league there’s no way you want to lose to the young bucks,” Canadian defenceman Drew Doughty said. “The league’s all about being a veteran and having experience. So there’s no way you’d want to lose to them.”
Canada won’t have to worry about that until at least the semifinals of the tournament that begins Sept. 17, 2016 and could run to Oct. 1. Canada is in Group A with the United States, the Czech Republic and Team Europe, while Team North America, Russia, Sweden and Finland make up Group B.
Team Europe will be made up of players from Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and other countries not represented. The lineup could feature goaltender Frederik Andersen of Denmark, Slovak blue-liner Zdeno Chara and forwards Anze Kopitar of Slovenia and Austria’s Thomas Vanek.
“I don’t like getting chased down by Zdeno Chara, so it’ll be nice to be on his team for once,” Kopitar said.
Former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger, who won gold with Canada as a coaching consultant on Mike Babcock’s staff at the 2014 Sochi Games, will coach Team Europe. Krueger, currently the chairman of Southampton FC in Premier League soccer, has considerable experience from coaching in Austria and Switzerland.
“He’s a great international coach,” said Team Europe president Franz Reindl, head of the German Ice Hockey Federation. “He’s motivated to come back to hockey. He’s in soccer right now. I think he’s really excited and motivated to lead the team as a head coach.”
There’s no shortage of motivation all around for the first World Cup of Hockey since 2004. Canada would like to reaffirm international supremacy after winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals, the United States and Russia would like to bounce back after Sochi and Team Europe and Team North America would like to prove they belong with the big boys.
Canada plays its first game Sept. 17 against the Czech Republic. The top two teams from each group go to the semifinals, with those winners meeting in a best-of-three-final.
Chiarelli, the Oilers’ GM, has already put together a short list of coaches — dual citizen Jon Cooper would appear to be the ideal candidate — and mock rosters for Team North America. He loves being the underdog, but on paper the team looks pretty formidable.
“Everyone can skate — like, really skate,” Chiarelli said. “I think the team will be fun to coach, it’s going to be a high-tempo team and all the guys are able to play at a high tempo.”
With 23-man rosters that should include only NHL players and with all games taking place on NHL ice at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, tempo shouldn’t be a problem. NHL stars still want to go to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, but the World Cup is another chance for a best-on-best hockey tournament that should be at the same level of competition.
“If you look at who is going to be on these rosters … it’s pretty hard to conclude anything except that this is going to be the best collection of hockey talent that has ever been around in this kind of a tournament,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said. “Usually when that happens you get the best hockey played.”
Fehr said the World Cup was “Step One” of bigger international initiatives for the NHL and NHLPA. The Olympic question is still out there, but the idea of opening the Chinese market to hockey with the 2022 Games is an intriguing, potentially lucrative possibility.
“Obviously China is an important market. It’s a big one,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We’re going to need to take a look at what we think the overall impact on the game would be by participating. Some of that may depend on the commitment that China is prepared to make to developing hockey in China … it’s obviously something that we’re going to have to at least take into account.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press