by Wes Gilbertson
September + Hockey.
Unless you’re strangely enthralled by the NHL’s exhibition season, that word combination usually has all the appeal of Root + Canal or Jury + Duty.
This year, though, it’s different.
With the return of the World Cup of Hockey, there’s meaningful, must-watch fall hockey for the first time in a long time.
If you’ve been busy working on your sun-tan or trying to straighten out your slice, we have you covered. Here’s your primer on the eight squads — six countries and two other intriguing collections of talent — competing for the title in Toronto …
TEAM CANADA (Group A)
On paper: It’s always gold-or-bust for Team Canada. They have the deepest talent pool of any of the World Cup of Hockey contenders, plus they’re working with home-ice advantage. They are defending World Cup champs (2004) and defending Olympic champs (2014) and defending World Championship, uh, champs (2016). So yeah, they are the favourites, for sure.
Key guy: That guy who wears No. 87 is pretty darn good. And Sidney Crosby, fresh off a Stanley Cup parade — and a Conn Smythe Trophy presentation — with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has made some significant contributions while wearing Canada’s colours.
Calgary connection: Everybody on the Flames’ payroll figures that captain Mark Giordano belongs on Canada’s blueline, but he didn’t get the call. Ryan Getzlaf’s jersey hangs in the rafters at the Saddledome, a reminder of four stellar campaigns with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.
Question mark: Will Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, show any signs of the lengthy layoff?
TEAM CZECH REPUBLIC (Group A)
On paper: Let’s be polite and just say you shouldn’t select a Czech in the first round of your World Cup fantasy draft. Or the second. Unfortunately, ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr declined his invite.
Key guy: Petr Mrazek might have the best mask in the tournament — on the left side of his lid, The Family Guy’s Peter Griffin is scaling the CN Tower with the Czech flag in hand. He’ll need the best save percentage, too, or his team could be in trouble.
Calgary connection: Flames right-winger Michael Frolik, a reliable two-way type, will be an important piece.
Question mark: Will the Czechs, once considered among the world puck powers, ever re-emerge as a frontrunner in international action?
TEAM EUROPE (Group A)
On paper: They’ll lead the tournament in flags, but that’s about it. With reps from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland, this mis-mash group is a definite longshot.
Key guy: Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar left the NHL’s latest awards gala in Las Vegas with both the Selke Trophy and the Lady Byng and even received votes in the Hart Trophy race. Slovenia’s only star could crack the roster for any country.
Calgary connection: They can all find the visitors’ dressing room at the Saddledome, but that’s about all we can think of.
Question mark: If they can pull off the ultimate upset, where the heck will they have the parade?
TEAM FINLAND (Group B)
On paper: Finland’s structured, defence-first approach might not bring you to the edge of your bar-stool or couch-cushion, but it’s been a recipe for a lot of strong showings in international action. Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers leads a new generation of go-to guys.
Key guy: We can’t wait to watch Patrik Laine, the oh-so-skilled second-overall selection of the Winnipeg Jets. The 18-year-old winger will be the youngest World-Cupper, but he has the potential to be a game-breaker.
Calgary connection: Now fully recovered from off-season hip surgery, Flames rearguard Jyrki Jokipakka will patrol the blueline.
Question mark: In a preliminary-round pool that features Russia, Sweden and Team North America, will the Finns — finalists at the last World Cup of Hockey, back in 2004 — be favoured to win even one game?
TEAM NORTH AMERICA (Group B)
On paper: A collection of 23-and-under talent, this squad is oozing speed and skill. With a fascinating forward group that is headlined by Battle of Alberta rivals Johnny Gaudreau and Connor McDavid, they’ll be the most entertaining team in the tourney.
Key guy: Matt Murray backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup crown last spring. These young-guns will make some mistakes (that was certainly the case during their pre-tournament tuneups), so the masked man will need to provide some timely stops.
Calgary connection: Still in contract negotiations with the Flames, Gaudreau will play a starring role for Team North America. His usual centre, Sean Monahan, was also selected to the roster but will miss out due to a minor back injury.
Question mark: Is anybody actually buying this mumbojumbo about their status as an underdog?!? C’mon.
TEAM RUSSIA (Group B)
On paper: With the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and Vladimir Tarasenko and Nikita Kucherov and on and on and on, Russia’s forward crew is capable of tickling twine at a ridiculous rate.
Key guy: He’ll likely bury a few, but Ovechkin’s most important role might be as captain of this talented troupe. The Russians have underachieved at marquee events during Ovechkin’s heyday — no medals in three trips to the Olympics, including a fifth-place finish on home ice in Sochi — but he has all the tools to carry a team on his broad shoulders.
Calgary connection: Nyet.
Question mark: Will Ovechkin, who has also suffered a string of disappointing exits in the Stanley Cup playoffs, finally win a big one?
TEAM SWEDEN (Group B)
On paper: Anchored by Ottawa Senators dynamo Erik Karlsson, plus up-and-comers Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman, Sweden gets our vote for best blueline in the tournament. On the other hand, their forward lineup isn’t nearly as star-studded as it has been in years past.
Key guy(s): With some folks wondering how the Swedes will put the puck in the net, it sure would help if the Sedin twins — Daniel and Henrik, who turn 36 later this month — can turn back the clock a wee bit.
Calgary connection: Flames centre Mikael Backlund was a late addition as an injury replacement.
Question mark: Will goal-scoring be a struggle? Will it even matter if puck-stopping stalwart Henrik Lundqvist is at his best?
TEAM USA (Group A)
On paper: It’s no secret that the top priority for Team USA’s braintrust was to build a roster capable of knocking off Team Canada. The result is a mix of skill and snarl and a couple of surprising omissions. They boast the best netminding trio — Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop, Cory Schneider — of any World Cup entry, but there’s only one crease.
Key guy: If you need a goal, like, right now, there’s nobody you would rather have on your side than Chicago Blackhawks sharpshooter Patrick Kane, the runaway winner of the NHL’s scoring race (and Hart Trophy balloting) last season.
Calgary connection: Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations at the Saddledome, had his say as a senior advisor for Team USA.
Question mark: Remember that three-game slugfest series between Canada and the U.S. to cap the 1996 World Cup of Hockey? Wouldn’t it be fun to see another, just with the other anthem at the end?