There’s a hint of irony that the orange color used on the Team North America jerseys is referred to as solar red given the team’s supernova-like short but brilliant run at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Team North America’s stay may have been but they made a lasting impact due, in large part, to their thrilling final game against Team Sweden. If you haven’t read it yet, there’s a terrific oral history of that game written by Craig Custance on The Athletic. It’s a terrific retelling of their final game, the wire-to-wire banger against Sweden and a wonderful reminder of how much fun they added to the tournament.
Despite topping the top team in their group, North America failed to advance to the knockout round of the tournament due to a 4-3 loss to Team Russia that featured nearly as much action as the win over Sweden.
Unfortunately, that loss to Russia deprived the hockey world of any more hockey from the U-23 squad. Including a semi-final matchup with Team Canada.
That potential battle with Canada was a point of conversation in Custance’s oral history and it sparked an idea in my mind for how we all could get a little bit more Team North America in our lives and see just how they would stack up against Team Canada.
The next World Cup won’t come until 2020 at the earliest and the next opportunity for Olympic participation would come in 2022 (and we know that’s hardly a guarantee). That leaves a window for the league to treat the fans with the matchup we all wanted to see; Team North America against Canada in a Summit Series-style event.
The basic structure would follow the same approach as the 2016 World Cup. NHL rules and officials. For however long the series – four, six, eight games – a single site would suffice. Scotiabank Arena worked just fine for the World Cup, so there’s no need to change what worked. It doesn’t seem necessary to follow the same series format as the 72 and 74 Summit Series as eight games is a marathon and the potential discrepancy in talent could make that long series feel even longer. A four- or six-game series would be just long enough to showcase the league’s talent but short enough not to get out of hand one way or the other.
Whether televised on ESPN again or carried by NBC, it would surely be a ratings bonanza in NHL markets. Whether there would be a broader appeal is hard to say. If it was scheduled at the right point of the offseason the league would benefit from a lack of competition outside of MLB games and that would probably be a key point of emphasis when it came to scheduling such a tournament. Picking a window when any players who went deep into the playoffs were healthy and resuming their training would be another factor to consider. It wouldn’t be imperative to marry the series right up against the start of the NHL season, but placing it in the middle of the summer would be an odd choice as well. Late August, just ahead of NHL training camps opening, would probably be the best choice.
In a follow-up to his oral history, Custance previewed what a 2018 version of Team North America would look like. However, to keep the magic of the 2016 team, I’d have them keep the same roster that took the World Cup by storm for this newest gimmick. After all, seeing how that team would have fared against Canada is what this is all about. This would be especially helpful in goal and on the back-end as John Gibson has rounded into a phenomenal goaltender and most of the team’s best defensemen are now over 23.
Sticking with the 2016 roster wouldn’t be without drawbacks. Brandon Saad has regressed recently and there are a few defensemen who would supplant Ryan Murray if the roster was picked again. We’d also be deprived of adding rising stars like Mathew Barzal and Mitch Marner to the roster but it’s worth it in the interest of seeing the original Team North America take on Canada.
Aside from giving Canada the option to cycle in the players who needed to be replaced due to injury (Jamie Benn, Jeff Carter, Duncan Keith and Tyler Seguin), I’d apply the same rules for Canada. At the very least prohibiting them from adding new players who are under 23 would keep the rosters in line between the two sides.
Even matching up against McDavid, Matthews, MacKinnon, Scheifele and Gaudreau, Canada’s roster is just too deep and they’d be the heavy favorite. Nearly the entire forward corps on the 2016 team was made up of dominant centermen, their goaltenders have three Stanley Cups, two Vezinas, four Jennings, a Hart Trophy, an Olympic gold and a World Junior gold between them and the blueline boasts four Norris Trophies. There’s a reason the Canadians went unblemished through the tournament, conceding only eight goals across six games.
The North American’s shortcomings were what ultimately cost them the tournament as they were unable to stem the tide as the Russians scored four times in the second period of what wound up as the decisive round robin game. Canada’s roster was deeper and more talented and it would be a chore for the young guns to keep up with them over the course of a series. What’s on the side of the U-23 team is their forwards match up well with the Canadian defensemen and the two years of growth they’ve enjoyed since the World Cup.
Canada’s top four is still formidable as Drew Doughty, Brent Burns, Alex Pietrangelo and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are still among the league’s best. The remaining three (Jay Bouwmeester, Jake Muzzin and Shea Weber) are hardly slouches, but if there’s one area of the Canadian roster that the North Americans would be able to exploit, it would be the blueline, particularly the bottom pair.
Further, keeping Sean Couturier and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would provide the young guns with quality two-way cover to compliment the firepower that was on full display in 2016. Matthews and McDavid are both top-five players in the world, let alone their age group and they’d lead the only group of forwards who can come close to Canada’s incredible depth. Keeping Scheifele, Gaudreau, Gostisbehere, Parayko, Reilly, Trouba (so basically the entire blueline) would be key for North America’s success in a series like this. Adding two more years of growth to a team that piled eleven goals on Team Europe, who wound up as the tournament runner-up, offers a ton of promise.
I think the North Americans would be good for at least two wins over the course of the series but ultimately Canada’s talent would win out. But it would still make for a phenomenal set of hockey games. A handful of games watching two loaded All Star teams in games with actual stakes. Six more glorious games of bonkers, hair-on-fire hockey.
The window to cash in on something like this is quite narrow. It may even be too late to bring these two squads together considering the number of Team North America players who are over 23, being two years away from the next possible incarnation of the World Cup and the quickly approaching expiration of the CBA. However, the question that has lingered since 2016 is just how that North American team would have fared against the tournament champs and pitting those two sides against each other would be appointment viewing for many hockey fans.
I would watch the hell out of the Millennial Summit Series. Make it happen, NHL.