The Rio Olympics are in the rear-view mirror, but the puck is about to drop on another international competition: the World Cup of Hockey, a star-studded, eight-team tournament revived by the NHL and the players’ association.
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To be held in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, the World Cup is the third installment of a similarly named event that debuted 20 years ago.
A little history: Professional athletes weren’t allowed to participate in the Olympic Games until 1986, so the Canada Cup was created to fill the hockey void. It was played five times between 1976 and 1991, and replaced by the first World Cup in 1996.
That tournament was won by Team USA, captained by Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, defeating Canada 5-2 in the best-of-three final behind extraordinary goaltending by the Blueshirts’ Mike Richter, who was named most valuable player. A second World Cup was staged in various venues, some in Europe, in 2004, and won by Canada, with Devils icon Martin Brodeur in goal.
This month’s tournament at the Air Canada Centre features about 180 NHL players and coaches, including about a dozen Rangers, Islanders and Devils, who report to various training camps in America and overseas this weekend. NHL camps don’t open until Sept. 22, during the tournament.
Four goalies from the three local NHL teams: Henrik Lundqvist (Team Sweden), Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss (Team Europe), Cory Schneider (Team USA), and two captains, John Tavares (Team Canada) and Ryan McDonagh, (USA) will lace up the skates, as well as forwards Derek Stepan (USA), Mats Zuccarello (Europe), J.T. Miller (North America U23), Nikolay Kulemin (Team Russia), and Kyle Palmieri (USA). Islanders bench boss Jack Capuano and New Jersey’s John Hynes are assistant coaches for the U.S. under former Rangers coach John Tortorella.
Similar to the Olympics, there are two groups of four teams. Canada, USA, Czech Republic and Team Europe are in Group A. Sweden, Russia, Finland and a North American squad of players aged 23 and under, are in Group B. The top two in each group after the round-robin will advance to the semifinals. The finals are a best-of-three, ending either Sept. 29 or Oct. 1.
Six of the eight teams assembled for the World Cup played in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi — USA, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic — and about half of those Olympians remain on the rosters. In 2014, when Canada won gold by beating Sweden 3-0 in the championship game, there were 25-man rosters. For this shorter tournament, the World Cup has 23-man rosters, so teams have 13 forwards rather than 14, seven defensemen instead of 8, and three goalies.
Team Europe is a smorgasbord of players from countries other than Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. Nineteen of the 23 players are from four countries (Slovakia, 6; Germany, 5; Switzerland and Denmark, four each). Zuccarello, from Norway, is on this squad, as are the Islanders’ goalies.
Team North America is an All-Star squad from Canada and the United States. The roster includes five No. 1 overall entry-draft picks and three second-overall selections. Fourteen players on the roster are from six teams: the Jets, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Oilers, Flames and Maple Leafs. Players from nine other teams, including Miller (15th overall in 2011), also were named.
Injuries could impact NHL teams, especially those which have about a dozen participants such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning who each have 11. The World Cup finals will be around midway through the NHL preseason schedule.