Friday, September 30, 2016

Can Team Canada be beaten? Yes, and here's how it could happen.

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey ended last night. You'll never guess who won.

Wait, of course you will. It was the same team that always wins, at least for the last decade or so.

Last night, Canada used a late third-period comeback to beat Team Europe 2-1, finishing off a two-game sweep of the final. That left Canada with a perfect 6-0-0 record for the tournament, and going back to the playoff round of the 2010 Olympics, Canada has now won each of the last three best-on-best tournaments, not to mention 16 straight games.

And so we appear to have an international dynasty on our hands. And while that's great news if you're a proud Canadian, it's not exactly a good thing for hockey fans in general. The sport has a long history of international tournaments providing some of its most memorable moments, from Paul Henderson to Dominik Hasek to Mario Lemieux to Tommy Salo. But those tournaments only matter if there's some suspense involved. Right now, Canada is the best and everyone knows it. If one team is completely unbeatable, then why should anyone bother to care about the next best-on-best event? Maybe it would be better for fans to just skip the international events and only worry about the games where we don't already know the ending.

This is a problem. And it's lead to some handwringing over whether Canada is just too good for these tournaments to be worth watching anymore. So today, let's try to push back on the idea of Team Canada as an unstoppable juggernaut. Hard as it may be to find today, there are small signs of optimism for everyone else. Here are eight reasons why the rest of the world should hold out some hope of beating Team Canada someday soon.

Reason No. 1: Team Europe almost beat them

Let's start with the most recent sign of optimism: Team Europe actually hung in there. For 55 minutes last night, they looked like they were even going to get a win.

That was a surprise. On paper, Team Europe wasn't even one of the tournament's stronger teams. A collection of players from the hockey world's less competitive nations, Team Europe wasn't expected to make the playoff round. But it did, upsetting Team USA along the way, and then it surprised Sweden in overtime. That set up a matchup that most of us assumed would be a Canadian cake walk.

But it wasn't. Team Europe played Canada tough in Tuesday's opener before dropping a 3-1 decision, and it was even better last night. And to be clear, this wasn't a case of a team getting badly outplayed but managing to keep the score close. Team Europe held the edge for long stretches, outshooting Canada and giving itself a real chance to win.

How did Team Europe do it? Mainly by being a well-coached team playing a disciplined and getting strong games from just about all of its key contributors. And sure, in the end, it still wasn't enough. But for a more talented roster, it might have been.

So it can be done. Now we just need to find someone who can do it.

Reason No. 2: Help is on the way

Your mileage may vary depending on which country you root for, but there's plenty of young talent that should be making waves in the NHL by 2020, and much of it isn't Canadian. Names like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl are all set to break through. Johnny Gaudreau and Evgeny Kuznetsov already have, and they'll be even better next time around.

Two years is too small a sample to draw any big conclusions from, but it's worth remembering that the last few drafts have been top heavy with non-Canadians. The rest of the world has accounted for 15 of the 20 top ten picks from the last two drafts, with Canada having just five. The next wave of talent to hit the league may not be as Canadian as we're used to seeing.

(Of course, for this point to work, you have to ignore that one of those Canadian players is Connor McDavid, whose work on Team North America at the World Cup was so impressive that plenty of hockey people were openly wondering if he's already the best player in the league. He's going to be ridiculously good. Sorry, rest of the world. Barring an alien abduction, McDavid is going to ruin you for the next two decades.)

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

What worked and what didn't at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey

It was a tougher series than most had expected, but in the end we got the result we were all waiting for.

Team Canada claims the World Cup once again, winning yet another best-on-best tournament by sweeping a surprisingly feisty Team Europe in two straight games.

Last night’s 2-1 comeback caps off a tournament that packed a decent number of twists and turns into its two-week schedule. We saw a new format with two new teams, a nice underdog story, and one so-called contender that turned out to be anything but.

It wasn’t perfect, or even especially close. But the World Cup certainly had its moments.

The 2016 edition marked the event's first appearance in 12 long years. Now that the tournament is done, let's take a look back at what worked and what didn't, and how we'd fix the problems that stood out.

What worked: The end result

Let's start with the obvious: The best team won. Canada's march through the tournament was yet another dominating performance by a nation that's getting used to them. The country now owns an international best-on-best win streak of 16 games and counting, dating back to the 2010 Olympics. And they've won three straight tournaments and five of the last six.

It wasn't always like this. Canadian fans of a certain age will remember the mounting panic around the turn of the century as the national program was going on a decade between major titles, including disappointing losses at the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Winter Olympics. But since then, a focus on skilled players and defined roles has restored Canada to its place at the top of the hockey world. They came into the tournament with the best roster on paper, and it wasn't especially close.

Of course, the games aren't played on paper, and by its nature, hockey is a game where anything can happen in a short tournament. A sudden slump or a hot goaltender can be all it takes to create an upset, and the Russians briefly had Canada on the ropes in last Saturday's semi-final.

But there would have been something unsatisfying about seeing a team as stacked as Canada lose on a fluke. Instead, they bulldozed everyone on their way to the final, just like we all expected them to. And while Team Europe proved a far tougher opponent than anyone expected, the best team still won.

If that's the whole point of a tournament like the World Cup, then the last two weeks were mission accomplished.

What didn't: The suspense factor

So yes, the best team won, and the tournament got the result it deserved. But from an entertainment perspective, Canada's continued dominance is starting to wear on these events.

It's all well and good to get to the happy ending, but a little suspense along the way would be nice.

These days, best-on-best hockey tournaments aren't about figuring out who the best team is. We already know that going in. Instead, they're largely about seeing whether anyone can play David to Team Canada's Goliath.

That can be fun in its own right — everyone loves an underdog story – and you can bet that when the day comes when someone finally pulls it off, hockey fans outside of Canada will be cheering them on. But over the last decade or so, it's just not happening.

And that might be an issue going forward, both at the World Cup and at any future Olympics. This is the entertainment business, and audiences don't typically want to sit through a long story if they already know how it's going to end.

In the same way that watching basketball's Team USA "Dream Team" was cool at first but has lost its luster over the years, seeing Team Canada roll through each and every major hockey tournament will eventually get old.

Maybe it already has.

How to fix it: The NHL could get creative with the format, either at the World Cup or elsewhere.

One suggestion that comes up often is a second Team Canada entry, either by splitting the program regionally or by creating a "B team" of players who didn't make the main squad.

There's also reportedly been talk of a Ryder Cup-style series that would pit a North American team against the best of Europe, or even Canada against the world.

But a more realistic fix might involve simply being patient. National programs tend to go through cycles, and right now it feels like Canada is at its peak while most of the other countries are struggling.

It's unlikely to stay that way. Countries like Finland and the USA have good young talent on the way, and Russia and Sweden will regroup. That doesn't mean that anyone will push past Canada as hockey's top nation, but we don't need them to — we just want somebody to narrow the gap enough that there's some uncertainty around the results.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Grab Bag: The Oilers' new mascot will eat your children

In The Friday Grab Bag (which is once again appearing on Thursday thanks to the World Cup):
- The Oilers' new mascot is terrifying
- Jacob Trouba is reminding me that I kind of miss holdouts
- An obscure player who'd be a Team Europe alumni if it had existed when he played
- The NHL is doing a Top 100 players list and has already screwed it up
- And the game that started Canada's current run of international hockey dominance

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ranking the World/Canada's Cup five Game Twos

Tuesday night's Game 1 of the World Cup final, which saw Team Canada earn a 3-1 win over Team Europe, sets up a do-or-die Game 2 Thursday night. A Canada win would end the tournament, and the trophy will be in the building, unless the league has come to its senses and thrown that ugly thing into a raging bonfire instead.

There have been seven World and Canada Cups in international hockey history, but we didn't get to see a Game 2 in all of those. Twice, in 1981 and 2004, the format called for a one-game final. But it's been best-of-three in the other tournaments, which gives us five Game 2 to work with. So today, let's take a look back at those five games, and rank them from worst to best.

As always, this is opinion only, and if you disagree, then you're wrong.

No. 5 – 1984: Canada 6, Sweden 5

The road there: Canada stumbled through the 1984 tournament, going 2-2-1 through the round robin and barely making the playoff round as the fourth seed. But Team Canada earned a trip to the final thanks to an overtime win over the Soviets in the semi-final, and they were facing an upstart Swedish team that had beaten them in their round robin meeting and had just embarrassed the Americans with a 9-2 blowout. The Canadians took the opener by a 5-2 final, but the second game proved closer.

Game 2: The game looked like a laugher early on, with Canada scoring four times in the first seven minutes and adding a fifth before the first period was over. A Paul Coffey goal early in the second made it 6-1, setting the stage for a furious Team Sweden comeback. They scored three unanswered goals to close out the second period, and draw to within 6-5 early in the third. But that was as close as they came, as Canada held on for the win and the series sweep.

The aftermath: This turned out to be the first of three straight Canada Cup wins for Team Canada, and remains the only finals appearance by Team Sweden.

The bottom line: What looked like a laugher wound up being a reasonably entertaining contest. But the game everyone remembers from the 1984 Canada Cup will always be that semi-final thriller with the Soviets.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Monday, September 26, 2016

World Cup final preview

So, uh... just like the NHL drew it up, right?

As expected, the three-game final of the World Cup of Hockey will feature the two playoff teams from Group A. That was the group that was built around Team Canada and Team USA, and sure seemed to have been designed specifically to get those two rivals into a marquee final matchup that would pack the building, boost TV ratings and have sports fans all around North America buzzing.

Canada held up its end of the bargain, running the table in the round robin and then beating Russia on Saturday night. But Team USA's grit-induced meltdown became the story of the tournament, and it opened the door for Team Europe to sneak into the playoff round instead. They then went into Sunday's matchup with Sweden as a heavy underdog, only to come through with a shocking 3-2 overtime win.

That would be the same Team Europe that many fans didn't want to see in the event at all, given that the whole point of the tournament is supposed to be finding hockey's top nation, and "Europe" isn't one. The same was true of the 23-and-under Team North America, of course, but at least those kids were fun. This European mash-up couldn't even settle on an anthem to play.

But now Team Europe is in the final, two wins away from being crowned international hockey's greatest... whatever they are. And all that's standing in their way is Team Canada. Sure, it seems like a tall order, but when you weren't even supposed to exist in the first place, winning two hockey games shouldn't seem all that tough.

Game 1 goes Tuesday night. Game 2 is on Thursday. And Game 3, if necessary, will be played Saturday. Spoiler alert: It won't be, but we'll get to that. Let's take a look at our two finalists.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, September 23, 2016

What's next for the World Cup's round robin losers?

We're down to four in the World Cup of Hockey. After yesterday's action, the round-robin portion of the proceedings is officially in the books and half of the tournament's teams have been sent to the sidelines.

The semifinals take place over the weekend, with Russia facing Canada on Saturday night and Sweden up against Team Europe on Sunday afternoon. We'll have a full wrapup on Monday, which will give us a chance to break down those four teams, how they got there, and preview the best-of-three final.

So today, let's focus on the four who didn't make it that far. Here's a look at each of the teams that were knocked out in the round robin, and where they go from here.

Team USA

We may as well start with the team that has everyone talking. Well, "talking" may not be the right word. "Criticizing?" "Brutalizing"? "Ruthlessly burying on Twitter?"

Take your pick. And just about all of it is deserved, because Team USA stands as easily the tournament's biggest disappointment. They weren't necessarily expected to win it all, but they did seem to have a clear path to the playoff round at a minimum (one made all the more easy by a format that just happened to leave them and Canada in a group with two of the tournament's weakest teams). At the very least, you figured they'd work in a win somewhere.

Instead, they immediately burned through any margin for error by dropping a stunner to Team Europe in the opener. In the process, they turned their matchup with Canada into a literal must-win, one they had to have to stay in the playoff hunt.

In theory, that should have been fine. This is a team, after all, that made it very clear that they'd designed the roster specifically to beat their northern neighbors. They loaded up on heart and grit, with a healthy dose of agitators to pester Canada's stars. They even brought along Brandon Dubinsky, whose main claim to fame has been suckering Sidney Crosby. And the roster featured so much leadership that they felt the usual captain and two alternates couldn't hope to contain it.

And overseeing it all was John Tortorella, a choice for coach who made it clear that this was going to be a sandpaper squad. When he's not barking at the media or trying to fight the other team, Tortorella is known for demanding a hard-nosed style with plenty of blocked shots and bloodied noses. Sure, he was chosen as coach at least partially because he wasn't working in the NHL, then almost immediately took the Columbus job. No matter. Tortorella's hiring left no doubt about what this team wanted to be.

Reigning NHL MVP Patrick Kane was held scoreless in three games. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

And for a brief moment, it looked like it all might just work. Team USA earned a win in its first exhibition game against Canada, taking a 4-2 decision in a game that featured plenty of scrums and at least one cheap shot. Canada won the rematch one night later, but the message had been delivered. The players bought in, promising that they would beat Canada just as long as the contest was decided by grit.

All of which made it all the more depressing to watch Tuesday's showdown, in which the Canadians largely toyed with their rivals on the way to a 4-2 win that eliminated Team USA from playoff contention. Dubinsky didn't even play, despite facing the one player he was brought aboard to neutralize. And maybe that was just as well, since it was almost embarrassing to watch guys like Justin Abdelkader being completely ignored while trying desperately to get under the skin of somebody, anybody, in red and white.

By the end, the whole thing just felt kind of sad. As Joe Thornton later pointed out, Canada had plenty of toughness of its own—it just happens to also double as skill. Trying to beat Canada at playing hard-nosed hockey is like challenging the whole country to a poutine-eating contest. It's not going to end well for you.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Grab Bag: Phil Kessel vs. Team USA

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Phil Kessel's tweet heard round the world
- The implosion of Team USA
- The ref-can is freaking great
- An obscure player who scored one of the biggest goals in Canada Cup history, which we've all since forgotten
- A word about the World Cup tie-breaking procedure
- Wait, isn't today Thursday?
- And a YouTube breakdown of happier times for Team USA: Their (tainted) win at the 1996 World Cup

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Avenge me: A history of teams paying back round robin losses

We're two games into the round robin portion of the World Cup, and we've already seen a handful of upsets, with favorites like Russia and the United States already tasting defeat, and in the case of the Americans, already being eliminated. With one game to go and some of the four playoff spots still up for grabs, fans around the world are no doubt panicking over the games their teams let get away.

But while the round robin is obviously important – you have to make the playoffs to win the whole thing – it's worth remembering that the results of individual games don't necessarily tell us much as much as we might think about what will happen in the playoff rounds.

In fact, the history of the World and Canada Cup tournament is filled with surprising round robin results that ended up getting flipped down the line. So in an effort to calm some nerves, here are five times that overreacting to a round robin result would have steered you wrong once the eliminations games began.

1976: Czechoslovakia 1 – Canada 0

In the first ever round robin game in Canada Cup history, Canada made a statement by crushing Finland 11-2. They went on the beat Sweden and the U.S., and they closed out the round with a win over their arch-rivals from the Soviet Union, winning those three games by a combined score of 11-3.

But in between, they dropped a surprising decision to Czechoslovakia. Vladimir Dzurilla outduelled Rogie Vachon at the Montreal Forum, turning aside all 29 shots he faced in a 1-0 win. The game was an instant classic, described at the time as one of the best ever played.

The two teams finished at the top of round robin standings, setting up a best-of-three final. But there was no repeat of Dzurilla's heroics – Team Canada blitzed him for four goals in the first period of the opening game, sending him to the bench and paving the way for a lopsided 6-0 win. Game 2 was more entertaining, with Canada jumping out to a 2-0 lead just three minutes in before a Czechoslovakian comeback set the stage for Darryl Sittler's tournament winner in overtime.

1981: Canada 7 – Soviet Union 3

By 1981, the Soviet Union was coming off a relatively rough stretch of international play. They'd won their usual Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976, but been upset by Team USA's Miracle on Ice squad in 1980, lost the 1972 Summit Series, and failed to even make the final of the 1976 Canada Cup.

When they met Canada in 1981 in the final game of the round robin, both teams were undefeated and battling for first place. The game was tied at 2-2 heading into the third, but Canada erupted for five straight goals in what ended up being a 7-3 laugher. Even with star goaltender Vladislav Tretiak sitting out due to illness, the result was an embarrassing one for the Soviets.

Both teams won their semifinal game to advance to a one-game winner-take-all final in Montreal. With Tretiak back in goal, most fans expected a closer game. Instead, they got an even bigger blowout. But this time, it was the Soviets who ran up the score, earning an 8-1 win and handing Canada what still stands to this day as its most embarrassing international loss.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Eight names with the most to gain -- or lose -- from the World Cup

The round robin portion of the World Cup has officially hit the halfway point. And that means that for four of the eight teams, the tournament itself is half over, since they’ll be going home empty-handed once the round wraps up on Thursday night.

We don’t know which teams those are yet, and there’s still plenty of time for this year’s tournament to take a few more twists and turns. But it’s fair to say that the pressure is building. And for some of those who are front and centre in this tournament, the pressure has been higher than for others.

So today, let’s take a look some of those who find themselves under an especially bright spotlight this week. Here are the eight names who have the most to gain – or lose – from their time on the World Cup stage.

Team Canada: Carey Price

Canada is a bit of a funny team to find a pick for. As the host team and overwhelming favorite, there’s no team in the tournament that’s under more pressure as a group – even one loss will be reason for panic across a nation. But the roster is stacked with so much talent that few individual players really stand out as being directly under a microscope.

But Price is an exception. After missing most of last year with an injury, his performance in the tournament will be watched closely for any hint that he's not 100 per cent back to his old Hart Trophy form.

Fans of Team Canada will want to see him do well, although with Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford waiting in the wings, it's not make-or-break. But fans of the Montreal Canadiens will be living and dying with each shot on net, hoping that their franchise player looks like his old self.

Saturday's opening-night shutout against an overmatched Czech squad was certainly a good sign. If Price is back to his old tricks, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But if he struggles, even briefly, well…. Montreal fans aren't the sort to panic, right?

Honourable mentions: When Habs fans need a break from overanalyzing Price, they can overanalyze new acquisition Shea Weber. Sidney Crosby will be under the spotlight because he's Sidney Crosby. And after taking over the GM duties from two-time winner Steve Yzerman, Doug Armstrong will take plenty of heat if Canada doesn't win it all.

Team USA: John Tortorella

We tend to focus on players in these sort of pieces, but there's no question that coaches and GMs can come under just as much scrutiny, if not far more. That's especially true for a team like Team USA, who made plenty of roster decisions that were widely questioned, all in an apparent effort to build a squad that would have the best chance at beating Canada.

After Saturday's disastrous opener that saw them drop a 3-0 decision to an underdog Team Europe, the Americans are in serious danger of missing the playoffs.

The heat on the management group has been cranked up, and there's lots more to come if Team USA can't come through in a literal must-win against Canada tonight. Plenty of that will fall on the shoulders of GM Dean Lombardi, who had the final call on the roster. But Lombardi still has two Cup rings in the last four years and plenty of credibility to draw from, so he'll get at least some benefit of the doubt.

Not so for Tortorella. He may have a Cup ring of his own, but 2004 was a long time and three jobs ago, and his reputation has taken a beating in recent years.

The coach already put himself in the spotlight earlier in the tournament with his musings on the national anthem, and he made that spotlight even brighter with some odd lineup decisions, including Saturday's puzzling scratch of Dustin Byfuglien and tonight's apparent line combos.

Tortorella's hard-nosed style is well-known, and he has a team that seems to have been designed in his image. If that team turns out not to be good enough, the coach will end up wearing that.

Tortorella still has his defenders, and Team USA can silence the doubters with a big effort tonight against the team they were built to beat. But if they can't pull it off and end up going home before the final four, there will be plenty of finger-pointing to go around. And a lot of them will be aimed behind the bench.

Honourable mentions: Yet another Hab makes an appearance, as Max Pacioretty was called out by Tortorella during the exhibition round. Patrick Kane will be under plenty of pressure as the team's best player, and his ugly defensive gaffe in the opener didn't help matters.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, September 19, 2016

Early World Cup observations

(Editor's note: The following is from an email exchange Sunday night between Dave Lozo and Sean McIndoe, aka Down Goes Brown.)

Lozo: OK, so now that we've both made bad jokes on Twitter about Green Day canceling shows at the World Cup, I thought I'd email you to see how your Sunday is going. Me? Two fantasy football losses, 2-1 in my picks pool with two games pending, and I want to believe Alex Ovechkin touched that puck at the end of the Sweden game.

Here are my three thoughts about the World Cup so far:

1) Team USA will lose to Canada and their tournament will be over after two games, which cracks me up because the NHL did everything it could to get USA and Canada into the semis.

2) Team Europe is great because they are old, like me, and really stuck it to Torts, another thing I enjoy.

3) This isn't World Cup-related, but I've been crapping like an untrained dog during a thunderstorm, so some of these emails may come from the toilet.

Ps: You know Canada has gold in the bag, right?


DGB: Hi Dave...

Both of my fantasy teams are 0-2, and I don't actually mind because I made a conscious decision at the beginning of the season to just accept that the entire hobby is just dumb, stupid luck and no rational person should care about it. Check back with me next week at 0-3 and find out how that's going.

Oh hey, speaking of dumb and stupid, let's start with Team USA. I haven't understood most of what they're doing all along in this tournament, from hiring Tortorella to the roster selection to benching Dustin Byfuglien on Saturday. They were never going to be the favorites, but they've got enough talent to at least have a shot. But they seem to want to do it with one hand behind their back, all in the name of grit and heart and compete and all of the other buzzwords that badly run hockey teams seem to love.

But all of that said, there's a part of me that could still see them pulling off the upset tomorrow night. They have the goaltending to make it happen, and if they get a bounce or two maybe they can make it happen. It's also possible that they already all hate Tortorella and can't wait to quit as soon as things go bad, but I can see the US winning this one. And besides, the best possible result would be a USA team that bragged about being built to beat Canada doing that, then finishing 1-2 and missing the playoffs anyway.

Am I crazy?


Lozo: Are you crazy? Absolutely. Fantasy football is the greatest thing ever created, as it allows us to fill gaping voids in our lives with legal gambling. This email is sponsored by DraftKings.

I know that as a Canadian, your default setting is to be all, "Oh geez, USA can do this and anything can happen because we Canadians are a humble people and want to take it one game at a time." I call bullshit! Bullshit, I say!

Do we have the goaltending to steal this one? Yes. Will that goaltending be in net? No. Jonathan Quick has squeezed a career out of two great months in 2012 playing behind a dominant 5-on-5 team in the postseason and now because of that and a fluky showing in a 1-0 loss to Canada in Sochi, Americans have deluded themselves into thinking Quick can steal a gold medal. And by Americans, I mean Dean Lombardi, the Kings GM who put together this deficient team.

And beyond that, this USA team isn't good. And yeah, we're not dressing Byfuglien, perhaps our best defenseman, and yeah, we left Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk and other great players home in the name of grit and Abdelkadering, but how about Patrick Kane only getting 4 minutes in the first period against Europe? Or Max Pacioretty on a third line? Or Max Pacioretty on a fourth line in practice Sunday? Torts is really the crazy one. Jack Johnson is on this team!

The ideal ending to this tournament is Team North America beating Canada in the final on a Jack Eichel penalty shot in overtime, allowing me to claim that as a USA gold.

I did not write this on the toilet.


>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, September 16, 2016

Grab bag: World Cup trade deadline day

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We're making some World Cup trades. No, it doesn't make any sense, just go with it.
- Debating team North America
- And obscure player joins the Double Name Club
- Looking back at Team USA's 1996 World Cup run
- And a YouTube look back at the game that started it all: NHL 92

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, September 15, 2016

World Cup Preview

The World Cup of Hockey gets underway Saturday, with the start of a round robin that will see each of the eight teams play three times. The two best records in each group move on to the single elimination semis before a best-of-three final. If that sounds like a quick tournament, it is—the whole thing will wrap up in two weeks, tops, which doesn't leave much room for slow starts or building chemistry.

In theory, that means that anything can happen. In reality, this isn't exactly an even field. There's a clear favorite, a handful of teams with a puncher's chance, and some serious long shots.

Oh, and even though it's an international tournament, a quarter of the teams aren't real countries. Don't ask.

Today, we break down the best and worst of each of the eight teams.

Group A

Let's be honest... this group exists in order to get Team Canada and Team USA into the semifinals, potentially setting up the NHL's dream matchup in the final. It would be a surprise if it didn't play out that way.

Team Canada

International history: There have been 12 true best-on-best tournaments played since the inaugural Canada Cup back in 1976. Canada has won eight of those, including four of five since the turn of the century.

Biggest NHL stars: The entire team is packed with them, so much so that P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall and Kris Letang aren't here even though they'd all be first-line players on most others team in the tournament. They've got the best player in hockey (Sidney Crosby), each of the last two Vezina winners (Carey Price and Braden Holtby) and the reigning Norris winner (Drew Doughty). They're good.

Coach: Mike Babcock, who gets to spend two weeks with this group of all-stars and then go back to coaching the Maple Leafs.

GM: Doug Armstrong, with help from pretty much every other NHL GM other than Steve Yzerman, who bailed after leading Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals.

Strength: As always when it comes to Team Canada, the depth up front is ridiculous, so much so that when Jeff Carter got hurt, they just swapped in a former MVP in Corey Perry, and when Tyler Seguin went down this week, they could turn to one of the league's best two-way centers in Ryan O'Reilly. Think of this way: Depending on how the lines shake out, superstars like John Tavares, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf will be asked to play supporting roles. That's scary.

Weakness: While the forward ranks are stacked, it's almost entirely with natural centers, which could create some issues with guys having to make quick adjustments to playing out of position. And the blueline, while good, is nowhere near as stacked as the rest of the roster.

Realistic best case: They run the table, going undefeated in front of the hometown crowd and winning yet another international title.

Realistic worst case: Pretty much anything short of that would be considered a disaster.

Most likely outcome: There are no sure things in international hockey, where every game can be crucial and one hot goaltender can singlehandedly stop a powerhouse. But it will be a surprise if Canada doesn't win it all.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Five more obscure but classic hockey video games

Last week, we celebrated the imminent arrival of NHL 17 by taking a look back at five classic but obscure hockey video games. I heard from plenty of readers who had fond memories of those five titles. But I also heard from others who had favorites titles of their own, and were upset that the games they'd grown up playing hadn't earned a mention. So this week, I think we need to do a sequel, and break out five more classics.

But first, a quick note. Based on the feedback from last week's post, more than a few readers appeared to miss the whole "obscure" qualifier – I heard from fans of games like Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey, and even a few who wanted to know why NHL 94 didn't make the list. First of all, because NHLPA 93 was better. But more importantly, if those iconic games count as obscure these days then I don't want to live on this planet any more. We're looking to recognize a few titles that aren't quite as well-remembered today.

With that cleared up, here are five more classic hockey games that you may or may not remember from distant days long past.

The game: Face Off! (1989)

The selling point: Take the management mode from Superstar Ice Hockey and combine it with the fighting engine from Blades of Steel, and you've got Face Off! And yes, the exclamation mark was part of the title.

The minor flaw: The movie adaptation with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta barely had any hockey in it at all.

Overall experience: Face Off! was an ambitious game that set out to do a little bit of everything, combining a franchise mode and in-game strategizing with arcade-style action and plenty of scraps. It didn't end up knocking any of those features out of the park, but you have to give it credit for even trying given how one-dimensional most games of the era were.

The gameplay itself was largely hit-and-miss; the graphics were nice but the AI was spotty, and the unique way the game handled shooting – any good scoring chance would open a new screen with a different view of the shooter and goaltender – was one that you either loved or hated. And then there were the fights, in which two players would drop the gloves, hurl an insult or two, and then proceed to gingerly paw at each other like old men playing "got your nose" with a toddler until one of them suddenly dropped to the ice bloodied and unconscious, soon to be dragged off the ice while the victor skated around celebrating. It's fair to say that approach hasn't aged well.

Lingering question: What was going through the mind of the one old man in the third row who watched every fight with a horrified look on his face?

The game: Hit the Ice (1990)

The selling point: It's arcade hockey, as imagined by people who have heard about the sport but never actually seen it.

The minor flaw: The game's insistence that players spend an extra quarter to purchase a dose of "Power Drink" led directly to professional sport's steroid era.

Overall experience: The best thing you can say about Hit the Ice is that it knew what it was. The game has no interest in realism, a fact that you probably figured out the first time a player executed a leaping backflip before blasting a shot the knocked the goaltender into the net. The whole thing was cartoonish and more than a little ridiculous.

It was also undeniably fun, which of course was the whole point. If you saw players wearing sun glasses and headbands and still dropped coins into the machine expecting realism, then that was on you. I mean, one of the players is named "Ben Dover." That gives you a pretty good sense of the level of maturity we're dealing with here.

(The player selection screen music was fantastic, though. Wh-wh-wh-why I oughtta… )

Lingering question: What's the deal with the ghost in the crowd?

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

A complainer's guide to the World Cup

The World Cup of Hockey is fun. Along with the Olympics, it’s the only true best-on-best tournament on the international hockey landscape. It’s played on NHL rinks under NHL rules, so there’s less of an adjustment for the league’s fans. And it doesn’t even interrupt the season. All in all, it’s a pretty hard concept not to like.

But as we’ve explained in the past, not liking things is what hockey fans do. It’s kind of our thing. So with the 2016 World Cup officially getting under way this weekend in Toronto, we’d better start digging for something to complain about.

To get you started, here are a half-dozen reasons to be irrationally annoyed with the World Cup.

The teams are all weird this year

The World Cup evolved from the Canada Cup, a tournament that began in 1976 and ran five times through 1991. All of those tournaments were six-team affairs, and with one exception they all featured the Big Six of international hockey: Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Finland and the USA. (West Germany replaced Finland at one tournament, in 1984). When the World Cup debuted in 1996, the format expanded to eight, with Czechoslovakia splitting into a Czech team and a Slovak squad and Germany being added to round out the field.

You may notice something about those teams: they’re all countries. That’s because the World Cup has always been an international tournament, one that pits teams representing individual countries against each other to determine world supremacy, or at least bragging rights. This might sound familiar, since it’s the standard format across all international sports and is just kind of taken for granted. It’s simple, it works, and you’d think it would be reasonably tough to screw up.

Enter the NHL. This year, the league decided to get creative, keeping the Big Six and then adding two new teams to the World Cup that don’t represent actual counties. The first is Team Europe, made up of players from countries like Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. It’s an unusual approach, but you can kind of see where the NHL is thinking here. None of those countries have enough talent to contend on their own, but combining them into one team at least gives fans a chance to see stars like Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Zdeno Chara (Slovakia) and Roman Josi (Switzerland), who’d otherwise be excluded from the action.

But for the final team, the NHL just dropped any pretense of this being an international competition and let the marketing department take over. They came up with something called Team North America, which will feature players from Canada and the US who are 23 and younger, in a transparent attempt to highlight some of the league’s up-and-coming stars while trying to appeal to younger fans. The team has scary uniforms and just enough skill and speed to at least be vaguely threatening, and if you focus on that you might even manage to forget that the entire thing doesn’t make any sense.

You have to at least hand the NHL some credit for thinking outside the box here, given the league’s traditional aversion to ever trying anything new. But what we’re left is an international tournament that features eight teams, only six of which are actual countries, all because the NHL decided it had to come up with a weird solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ranking the Team North Americas through the years

The World Cup is just days away, and much of the recent buzz has been around Team North America. The new entry, made up of some of the game’s brightest young stars, has already beaten Team Europe in a pair of exhibition games.

They’re fast, they’re skilled, their uniforms are kind of cool, and they’re gaining credibility as a dark horse to make some noise, if not win the whole thing. It’s all led to talk that the Team North America concept, originally thought to be a one-time deal, could end up becoming a permanent fixture in future World Cups.

But today, let’s forget about the future and turn to the past, with what could make for a fun hypothetical: What if there had always been a Team North America? What if every Canada Cup and World Cup had featured a team of the best 23-and-under Canadian and American players of the day?

Let’s find out. We’ll go back over each of the seven Canada and World Cup tournaments, and figure out what a Team North America roster would have looked like.

First, some ground rules. We’ll use the same criteria that the 2016 tournament is using, meaning players have to be 23-or-under as of October 1 in the year the tournament is held. As with this year, we’ll allow players who don’t have NHL experience, but limit the roster to players who’ve at least been drafted.

As best we can, we’ll ignore the benefit of hindsight and try to go by a player’s reputation at the time of the tournament, meaning some late-blooming stars may be passed over. And to keep it simple, we’re going to pretend that everyone is healthy and available.

(All research for this post was conducted using the tools at the indispensable

We’ll count the seven teams down from worst to best. And as it turns out, that means we’ll begin at the beginning.

No. 7 – 1976

Up front: There are some recognizable names here, including Bryan Trottier, Lanny McDonald and Clark Gillies, but it’s not a star-studded group. Despite being in the middle of the record-breaking 70s, we’ve got only one 100-point scorer, and it’s Pierre Larouche.

The blue line: Denis Potvin is the big star here, not to mention the team’s best player. Ian Turnbull would be there too. And since the real-life teams decided to allow WHA players, we will too, which lets us scoop up Mark Howe.

In goal: There’s not a ton to choose from; we’re probably rolling with John Davidson as our starter and hoping we don’t need to turn to a backup.

Worth noting: This would really be a Team North America in name only; other that Howe, I’m not sure a single American would make the squad.

Overall outlook: They’d have been fun to watch, but there’s just not enough talent here to compete with the world’s best.

No. 6 – 2004

Up front: We have to go back over a decade for the last World Cup, which means we just miss out on the Sidney Crosby era. But we do pick get to include players from the ridiculously stacked 2003 draft, one that’s often considered one of the best ever.

The biggest name would be Rick Nash, who’d just won a share of the Rocket Richard as a teenager. He’d make a nice first-line combo with soon-to-be Senator teammates Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. It gets thin after that, though, with big names like Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier just missing the cutoff, and the team wouldn’t have a 60-point scorer.

The blue line: A solid group, one likely built around Jay Bouwmeester, Dan Hamhuis and John-Michael Liles.

In goal: In theory, this would be considered a strength, since you’d have the only two goalies since 1968 to go first overall in Rick DiPietro and Marc-Andre Fleury.

You’d likely see DiPietro as the starter, given that he was coming off a decent year and wouldn’t be widely considered a bust until a few years (and one big contract) down the road.

Worth noting: That 2003 draft class doesn’t end up helping as much as you’d think it would.

Patrice Bergeron makes the team, and maybe Dustin Brown does too. But future stars like Shea Weber, Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Suter and Corey Perry were all still waiting to make their NHL debut, so it’s unlikely you’d see any of them on the team.

Overall outlook: It’s not a bad squad, but it’s impossible to look at it without thinking about how much better it would be if we’d have had even one more year to work with.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, September 9, 2016

Grab Bag: All World Cup all the time

In an all World Cup edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the whole Tortorella anthem controversy
- The NHL gets something right with the overtime format
- Somebody's getting hurt soon, and we need to deal with it
- An obscure World Cup hero
- And a YouTube breakdown that reminds us that sometimes, those flashy offensive defensemen can play some defense too

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The 15 people you meet at every major international hockey tournament

The World Cup of Hockey has finally arrived, with camps open and pre-tournament games under way as of Thursday.

This will be the first true best-on-best international tournament since the 2014 Olympic Games and, depending on whether the NHL decides to go to South Korea in 2018, quite possibly the last for a while.

Whether it’s the World Cup or the Olympics or the old Canada Cup, these big international tournaments are always fun. You never know quite how things will play out, with upsets, injuries and breakout performances combining with a compressed scheduled to create a sense that nothing can be taken for granted.

And yet, there’s a certain familiarity to be found. Once you’ve been around long enough to live through a few of these things, you start to realize that there are some recurring characters that seem to show up each and every time.

So today, let’s look at 15 of those people – players, fans, coaches and beyond – that you can count on crossing paths with at every major international hockey tournament.

1. The player from your favourite NHL team who plays for another country

This one’s always a bit tricky. You like this guy – heck, he might even be your favourite player – but for the next few weeks, you can’t cheer for him.

When it comes to international hockey, country comes first—even if only temporarily. You might have this guy’s jersey hanging in your closet, but for now, he’s the enemy.

But that raises a host of ethical questions. Are you still allowed to want him to do well? As long as he’s not playing against your country that night, then it should still be OK, right? After all, you don’t want him to come back to the NHL in the middle of a prolonged slump.

Then again, if he heats up he could end up knocking your country’s team out of the playoff round, so maybe not. Besides, maybe a bad tournament would give him something to prove for the season. Well, unless it wrecked his confidence…

It’s confusing. In the end, you’ll usually settle for just hoping he doesn’t get hurt. Ideally, he’ll stay healthy but not play especially well, which you can then blame on the coaching staff not using him properly.

2. The player from your country that you usually hate but will grudgingly cheer for

Ugh. You can’t stand this guy, with his diving and whining and cheap shots and that face that just makes you want to see someone punch it. When it comes to NHL action, you’d never root for him.

But this isn’t the NHL. This is international hockey, and national pride comes first. So for just a few weeks, you’ll put the past aside and cheer this guy on. Maybe not all that loudly, but you’ll do it.

It might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but that’s just the kind of sacrifice you’re willing to make for your country. Not all heroes wear capes.

3. The player from your country that you usually hate and will never cheer for

No. Just… no. Not this guy.

Look, you love your country, and would do almost anything to support it. But there is a line, there has to be a line, and that line must be drawn right here.

(An entire nation is looking in your direction right now, Brad Marchand.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Looking back at five obscure but classic hockey video games

Everyone knows the NHL and Blades of Steel series, but here are five hockey titles that you may or may not remember from the old days of arcade, computer and console action.

This is a big week on the hockey calendar. Camps haven't opened and nobody's played a game yet, but for many fans the new season has officially arrived. That's because it's now less than a week before NHL 17 hits store shelves.

The latest NHL video game is always a big deal, because the series has essentially taken over as the only show in town when it comes to hockey games. But it wasn't always this way. There was a time when a hockey fan looking to get in some joystick-based action had plenty of options to choose from. Some of those titles are still well-known to fans today: Blades of Steel in the arcade, Ice Hockey on the old Nintendo, and even NHL spinoff Mutant League Hockey still bring back memories for a generation of fans.

But today, let's go a little more obscure. Here are five hockey titles that you may or may not remember from the old days of arcade, computer and console action.

The game: Hat Trick (1984)

The selling point: It was hockey that you could play in an arcade. In the mid-80s, that was pretty much all we could ask for.

The minor flaw: Well, "hockey" might be stretching it a bit. Hat Trick's version of the game was one-on-one. Two-on-two if you counted the limbless torsos that were apparently supposed to be the goaltenders.

Overall experience: Strangely addictive. The two players chased the puck around a tiny rink (which was tricky because it ricocheted like a ping pong ball), occasionally slamming into each other, the boards, and the torso-goalies. Speaking of which, you had to control the goalie yourself, even though you were also controlling the skater. If that sounds impossible, you're starting to get a feel for the whole experience.

Still, the game was undeniably fun for its time, and we all thought it was super cool that the players left little skate marks wherever they went. Today, it doesn't look all that impressive. But if it was 1985 and your dad had given you a fistful of quarters to spend while you waited for your pizza to arrive at The Organ Grinder, you could do a lot worse.

Lingering question: Why did one of the tanks from Firepower come out after each period to clean the ice?

The game: Superstar Ice Hockey (1987)

The selling point: This computer game was reasonably competent, combining decent graphics and gameplay with an impossibly catchy theme song. But the really cool feature was one that didn't even have a name yet. Like other games in the SportTime series, Superstar Ice Hockey allowed you to set up a team, and then guide it through multiple seasons, improving the roster via trades and developing new players. Decades before games like Eastside Hockey Manager and the NHL series itself made the concept famous, Superstar Ice Hockey's rudimentary dynasty mode was one of the first to give gamers a taste of what the future would hold.

The minor flaw: That damn theme song would still be stuck in your head almost thirty years later. Trust me on this one.

Overall experience: Not bad. While the gameplay wasn't the most realistic, it was all sorts of fun to build an expansion team of plodding castoffs from last place also-rans to Cup contender status. And even if you couldn't win a game in year one, you could always amuse yourself by choosing weird uniform colors and then hacking your opponents' ankles until they did flips. Are you listening, George McPhee?

Lingering question: Who was "Norm", and why was he the default strategic setting?

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, September 2, 2016

New post: An anthem we'd all stand for

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What we need to do with that horrible World Cup trophy
- Don Cherry has thoughts on Colin Kaepernick
- The three comedy stars of August
- An obscure player who stole his name from an Austin Powers movie
- And when you need the national anthems done right, you turn to one man: Burton Cummings

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Five stories from the last ever Canada Cup

As we finally say goodbye to hockey’s least interesting month, fans are turning their attention toward next month’s World Cup. We’re just a few weeks away from players hitting the ice for a rare best-on-best international tournament (kind of). It’s going to be lots of fun.

The World Cup, of course, is a direct descendent of the Canada Cup, a tournament that started in 1976 and ran every three-to-five years until being rebranded in 1996. The last tournament to carry the Canada Cup name came in 1991 – and it kicked off with the opening of the round robin games 25 years ago Wednesday.

The 1991 Canada Cup had an almost impossible act to follow, coming four years after the 1987 edition that many consider the greatest international tournament ever played. So maybe it’s not surprising that 1991, while entertaining, never really resonated with hockey fans in the same way that previous versions had. We all remember Gretzky-to-Lemieux, but 1991 sort of blends into the background with other tournaments.

So today, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the opening games, let’s refresh our memories by looking back at five of the biggest stories from the 1991 Canada Cup.

Spoiler alert: Canada wins

We might as well cut through the suspense and begin at the end. This edition of the Canada Cup ended the way almost all of them did: with Canada taking home the title. The home team swept Team USA in a two-game final to win the tournament for the third straight time and fourth out of five overall (the Soviets won in 1981).

That win wasn’t exactly an upset, given the strength of the Canadian roster. They were missing some big names, with Mario Lemieux out with a back injury, Steve Yzerman cut by Mike Keenan yet again, and Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and Cam Neely also absent. But the roster was still stacked, featuring in-their-prime stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens.

Canada got off to a slow start, managing just a 2-2 tie against Finland in the opening game. But they heated up from there, finishing the round robin undefeated and then knocking off Sweden in the semi-final to set up a showdown with the Americans. More on that in a second.

The biggest story on the Canadian roster was a rookie

Given how much talent was packed onto Team Canada, it seems odd to say that the roster’s biggest attraction may have been a teenager who’d never played an NHL game. But when you’re talking about Eric Lindros in 1991, all the usual rules kind of go out the window.

Lindros was fresh off of being taken by the Nordiques with the first overall pick in the draft. He refused to sign with the team, and was adamant that he’d never do so. There was still some skepticism lingering over whether he’d actually follow through on that threat, but it’s fair to say that he was already a controversial figure by the time the tournament rolled around.

That didn’t stop Keenan from putting him on the team, and the hockey world got their first look at Lindros against NHL-caliber talent. He didn’t disappoint, making an impact early on – literally. He crushed Swedish defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and Czechoslovakian winger Martin Rucinsky with clean hits, knocking both out of the tournament.

Lindros finished the tournament with three goals and five points in eight games, before heading back to junior to make good on his promise to never play for Quebec.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News