It's not hard to find people who are skeptical about the World Cup. You can easily find publications calling it "the World Cash Grab of Hockey" or using other assorted wisecracks. Don't listen to it. The tournament starts this week in Toronto and the betting here is that it's going to be one of the highlights of the 2016-17 season, no matter what happens between October and June.
In the weeks prior to training camps opening, there were injury bailouts and some more dubious than others (here's looking at you, Duncan Keith). And there's the curious case of Czech forward Tomas Hertl, who was actually lauded for his decision in a statement by San Jose GM Doug Wilson.
"After speaking with Tomas, we're pleased that he has chosen to put his commitment to the Sharks and his teammates first," Wilson said, adding that Hertl is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
Hertl hurt his knee during the Stanley Cup final and probably isn't at full strength. Fair enough. But an NHL GM shouldn't be downgrading the tournament either. It's for the greater good of hockey. There is going to be injury risk every day, just like there was in previous World Cups and previous Canada Cups. That's part of the deal.
But with snickers growing about the Hertl affair, camps and exhibition games started and the tide quickly turned. A cash grab? Team USA and Team Canada turned what was an exhibition game into a grudge match Friday in Columbus and the Sweden-Finland affair was high-flying hockey. The Russians and Czechs showed off their disdain.
And then Team North America blew everybody away with its display of speed and skill Thursday night in Quebec City. I spent four days with with under-24s last week and walking into that locker room was like looking at a crystal ball of the NHL's future.
Think about it. In the same room were Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Matt Murray, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau and so many more young players. Both serious and casual hockey fans will marvel at their skill. Team Europe was simply far too slow to deal with them and it will be interesting to see how Sweden, Finland and Russia deal with the young stars during pool play.
It's a shame there's no matchups between Team North America and either Team Canada or Team USA. That could happen in the semifinals if Team North America could get that far. Hockey fans should hope for it. It would be a colossal game to see, say, Eichel go against Team USA or McDavid go against Canada.
Is Team North America a gimmick? Absolutely. Will money be made on tickets, merchandise and the like? Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with it. Perhaps only six or seven of the 23 players would have been in the tournament playing for Canada and USA otherwise and so many of these players are worth the price of admission.
And let's not forget the television aspect. ESPN, which hasn't televised hockey since 2004, will spend the entire month of September broadcasting the tournament and talking up the sport in the same month the NFL is kicking off and baseball is heading down the wire of its schedule. That's no small victory for the game.
The last World Cup was in 2004 and there was a pall over the event because it was the final set of games played before the lockout that canceled the season. If this tournament goes well, it could mean another one in 2020 and maybe an exit, stage left from the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. The NHL shutting its season down for three weeks in February -- after football is over -- has always seemed goofy. Playing a tournament like this in September is a tremendous scene-setter for the upcoming season.
Of course, there's going to be money made. And what's wrong with that? We're going to see great hockey. That's what's important.
This corner was in Quebec City's Videotron Centre for about 20 minutes Thursday morning when it became plainly obvious the year-old building would already be in the top third of NHL rinks were the city already back in the league.
The entrance hall rivals the pavilion of Buffalo's KeyBank Center (get used to that name), the sightlines are expansive like Montreal's Bell Centre and the underbelly facilities -- not seen to fans but critical to a building's success -- are top-notch.
"It's a tremendous building and the people of Quebec City should be tremendously proud of this facility," said Team North America coach Todd McLellan... "It's always been a very good fan base here. They deserve a building like this."
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was in the building for the first time and gave glowing reviews as well while meeting with reporters during the Team North America-Team Europe game. Daly's picture was on the top of the cover of Friday's Journal de Quebec with a French headline that said he was impressed by the building.
Naturally, Daly was besieged by Quebec reporters wanting to know what happened with the city's expansion bid and wondering when another team can be added.
On that front, Daly didn't have much concrete information. He said the league's East-West geographic disparity -- and not the falling Canadian dollar -- were the main reasons Quebec wasn't added now. Las Vegas will make the league a 16-15 split among East and West and adding Quebec to the East would be difficult because who would go to the West? Detroit and Columbus just came back to the East to ease their travel and television concerns and neither would have any interest in going back.
As for a relocation, Daly said the league expects Arizona to figure out a new building in either downtown Phoenix or Scottsdale. The most likely candidate would be Carolina, which remains for sale by the family of Peter Karmanos, but commissioner Gary Bettman has been adamant the Hurricanes aren't leaving Raleigh. It looks like Quebec has to sit idly by, much like Winnipeg did for several years before the Atlanta Thrashers moved there in 2011.
The Videotron Centre is next door to Le Colisee, the home of the Nordiques from 1979-1995. The Colisee is now mothballed much like Memorial Auditorium was from 1996-2009. As one veteran Quebec reporter told me of the Nordiques' old home: "Few lights, minimum security. The building is dead."
Marking your Cup calendars
This week's World Cup exhibition schedule includes all the European teams coming to this side of the pond. There's a big doubleheader Wednesday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, with Team North America meeting the Czech Republic at 3:30 and then a Canada-Russia showdown at 7:30. Good planning there to be in the Burgh: It's Sidney Crosby vs. Evgeni Malkin.
Prior to heading to Pittsburgh, Team North America plays Team Europe in a rematch at 6 Sunday night in Montreal's Bell Centre. Both remaining exhibitions featuring Jack Eichel & Co. will be available online only on ESPN3. Sunday's game is expected to unveil Eichel at wing on a line with McDavid and Gaudreau. Yowza.
On Tuesday, Team USA meets Finland in Washington's Verizon Center. On Wednesday in DC, it's Team Europe against Sweden.
Thursday is Media Day in Toronto, with all the teams and players slated to be on hand for practice and interviews. All games will be in Air Canada Centre.
The tournament opens at 3:30 Saturday, with Team USA against Team Europe, and continues at 8 Saturday with Team Canada against the Czech Republic. Team North America's opener is at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18 against Finland.
The evolution of HarborCenter as a spectacular training ground for the Sabres continues this year with the team's Prospect Challenge and the opening of camp proper moving into the facility. The prospects played in First Niagara Center last year largely because of the debut of Eichel but in most years HarborCenter will be much better and about the size needed to handle fans. And moving camp there will allow the Sabres to utilize two rinks at once for workouts, which is really what's been needed at the start when more than 50 players are around.
Also at HarborCenter, the Rochester Amerks are playing an exhibition game against Binghamton on Thursday, Oct. 6. Tickets are $10 and already available at Tickets.com
When next year's World Junior Championships are here, having HarborCenter will make an incredible difference from when the tourney was here in 2011. The secondary rink for games won't be sentenced to the outpost of Niagara University's Dwyer Arena and there will be a practice rink available as well. Not to mention having major hotels and restaurants in front of the arena that didn't exist six years earlier.
The Sabres have announced that Amerks PR man Rob Crean is coming back to Buffalo to serve as Director of the World Juniors, the liaison between the Sabres and USA Hockey. He will also assist with special projects at HarborCenter and in the Sabres’ community relations department. Crean has previously worked with the Sabres and Coyotes and was an event coordinator for the 2011 World Juniors.
Around the boards
- Chris Chelios about Team USA on an ESPN conference call last week: "Patrick Kane, in my opinion, is the best player. He's been their best player throughout the past two Olympics, so that's not a question for me."
- Brett Hull speaking to Chelios about Team North America on the same call: "From the opening shift, we just looked at each other and said, 'OK, these guys are ready to go. They are not afraid of everything and they are very confident.' Almost to a point where Chris and I told each other after the first period, they are almost too skilled. They are over-passing, they are over-stick handling, and if they would just kind of tone it down a little bit and take some shots and stop the extra move or the extra pass, that game could have been a lot worse."
- Plenty of chatter in hockey circles at how well the new Las Vegas franchise is doing at building its front office. A recent hire was deposed Florida player personnel director Scott Luce, son of Sabres Hall of Famer Don Luce. He's been hired as Vegas' director of amateur scouting.
- What's in a name? Montreal's new AHL affiliate, which is moving to its suburbs from St. John's, Newfoundland, for the 2017-18 season, is going to be called the Rocket de Laval. The ode to Rocket Richard was the overwhelming winner in a name-the-team contest. Pretty cool. Can't wait to see the logo.