Johnny Gaudreau and Ryan Murray
The Canadian and American 23-and-under team has made fast friends as the World Cup approaches, and they're excited to play for each other at the tournament.
They've quickly become a favorite topic for water cooler talk and based on the exhibition results, we all know Team North America will challenge the older national squads at the World Cup. But there's gotta be a lot of pressure on these spry young lads as they prepare to face down the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Erik Karlsson, right?
“To be honest, it's been pretty loose,” said defenseman Ryan Murray. “No one's too shaky before the games, everyone is just having fun together. We don't have a nation or a flag to play for, so we're here for each other.”
The uniqueness of the team's composition – Canadian and American kids 23 and under – has also really helped the atmosphere off the ice. Many of the players were highly-touted coming into the NHL (heck, Auston Matthews hasn't even made his Maple Leafs debut yet) and have played each other for world junior titles or draft positioning. But for a couple weeks, they're all wearing the same jersey.
“We've had a blast,” said center Jack Eichel. “All these guys are awesome and we're pretty similar in our interests. For us to get to know each other, that's been one of the best parts so far.”
On other World Cup teams, leadership was probably a bit easier to peg. Ovechkin is a veteran superstar and an NHL captain, for example, while Sidney Crosby has worn the 'C' with success for Canada before. And while Connor McDavid is North America's captain, the usual dressing room dynamic has been different so far; there are no age barriers and the voices have been varied. On the ice, things have moved quickly and that could really benefit a team that has been formed out of the ether.
“Everyone has created some chemistry,” Murray said. “You see guys like Morgan Rielly and Aaron Ekblad, who have never played together before, and they look really good as a pair. That's pretty rewarding to see.”
Perhaps the quick bonding off the ice can help explain that. With no real seniority, duties can happen organically. Players cited defenseman Seth Jones as the team's dressing room DJ, though the Blue Jackets standout was quick to minimize his skills.
“I wouldn't call myself a DJ,” Jones said. “I just put my phone on and turn on Spotify playlist. I mix it up for them a little bit. A lot of guys like hip hop before the game, so we've been going that route and maybe before practice we'll throw some country on.”
So far, the soundtrack has worked. North America blitzed Team Europe in its first two exhibition games and learned some valuable lessons about defense and pace in a loss to the Czechs. Now it's time for the real competition and the kids aren't shrinking from the challenge.
“It's exciting for all of us that we're young and we're in this tournament,” said defenseman Colton Parayko. “We're going to try to make some noise against the big squads. That's one of the fun things for us. We're all really excited about that.”
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