It’s time for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and we all know what that means. For Pittsburghers and Americans all over, it’s time to dust off those red, white and blue jerseys. But wait, not so fast. Today, let’s talk about why Pittsburgh and pretty much everyone who loves hockey should be cheering for team North America, the group made up of players from Canada and the US all under the age of 23, in this tournament.
John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks), J.T. Miller (New York Rangers), Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Vince Trochek (Florida Panthers) were all brought up in Pittsburgh. They went in the same draft in 2011, the most players from Pittsburgh ever taken in one single draft. From this group, Saad is the elder statesman, experience-wise, having won the 2015 Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. These guys have all lived among our rivers and cheered for the Penguins. Many probably played against you or your family and as we all know their “never quit” is as Pittsburgh as it gets.
So maybe we should be taking their side instead of Patrick Kane and T.J. Oshie’s during the World Cup of Hockey. Maybe we should put down the red, white and blue and for a few days pick up black and blood orange (don’t ask — I didn’t vote on the color schemes). Because these are all guys who are good enough to represent their respective nations, whether they be the U.S. or Canada, but because they’re so young just wouldn’t be chosen.
Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Brandon Saad played most of the team’s opening exhibition game on a line. I dubbed them the future line because this trio is symbolic of what the NHL and the National programs are moving towards. Gaudreau and Eichel both have Hobey Baker Awards in their trophy cases symbolizing the shift to more college-products in the NHL. This is something that benefits American hockey and Pittsburghers with their six programs in driving distance (Bowling Green, Miami, Ohio State, Mercyhurst, Penn State and Robert Morris).
This is the team to show your kids, cousins and younger siblings. These players started playing with the Allegheny Badgers or Pittsburgh Elite programs. They skated at Hot Shots. Took turns at Southpointe and still call this town home.
You have Brandon Saad whose entire family still lives in the area, including extended members they sponsored recently to move from war-torn Syria. There’s John Gibson, who grew up in Whitehall and took the NHL by storm in the spring minding the net for the Anaheim Ducks. Both have been NHL All-Stars. Both embrace the role model title. As Gibson said recently to the Penguins own Michelle Crechiolo, “I think since the draft we’ve been trying to be role models. Hopefully kids locally will want to follow us.” These guys give kids the chance to dream in a way team USA hasn’t for local kids. Sure Phil Kessel grew up in Wisconsin and T.J. Oshie played college hockey, but those guys haven’t played on your rink. Brandon Saad’s name still hangs on banners in the area.
And the connections go beyond players born here. Matt Murray was a huge part of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning spring; he’s penciled in as starting netminder for the squad. Even Gaudreau is no stranger to Pittsburghers as he wowed locals in the winter of 2013 when he put on a show at the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center for Boston College. This team is full of guys just begging to be rallied around from Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, to Nathan MacKinnon, who scored as pretty of a penalty shot goal as you’ve ever seen in their first exhibition game.
This is a team of kids from all over the place coming together to get the chance to dream. North America, or the under-23s or the youngstars or whatever you want to call them, is the team we should all be rooting for in the World Cup of Hockey.