COLUMBUS, Ohio – Jack Eichel thinks the World Cup of Hockey is a fantastic idea. He could find out soon if he’ll be playing in it.
The initial 16 players for each of the eight teams will be announced March 2 as the NHL and its players’ association move a step closer to the international event. Eichel is one of three Sabres with a chance to play in the tournament, which will be held Sept. 17 through Oct. 1 in Toronto.
“It’s going to be a great thing for the game,” Eichel said Friday. “Our goal as a league should be to grow the game, and this is something that can definitely help it. It’s just going to be a great experience for everyone involved.”
Eichel is a strong candidate to make Team North America, which will be made up of Americans and Canadians ages 23 and under.
“It’d just be a huge honor,” he said in Nationwide Arena. “If I had the opportunity to be part of it, it would be great for my family to be able to come see that. It’s a great opportunity to play against the world’s best.
“There’s so many great young players. It’s going to be exciting.”
Rasmus Ristolainen probably has the best chance of representing the Sabres in the tournament. The defenseman gave Finland the 2014 world junior championship with an overtime goal, and his country likely will call upon him to compete this fall.
“I try to do my best here, play good, play better, and if I’m good enough I hope I’m there,” Ristolainen said. “I can’t do too much. I’ve just got to do my best and see how it goes.”
Ryan O’Reilly’s impressive season and quality showing at last year’s world championship may have him on Canada’s radar. The host country is extremely strong down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron, but O’Reilly’s experience as a winger puts him in the roster discussion.
“To be involved in that is a huge honor,” he said. “I’m just focusing on playing hockey. You never know what’s going to happen. I might get lucky and be in there.”
The remaining teams in the tournament are the United States, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Europe, which will feature players from countries that don’t have their own team. Team Europe, which has former Sabres forward Miroslav Satan as its general manager, and Team North America were deemed the most intriguing by Buffalo’s players.
“With the way they’re breaking down the teams, having the young stars team and having the combined European team, it’s going to be dangerous,” O’Reilly said. “Every team, I think, will be able to win that tournament. It’s going to be an exciting thing.”
Marcus Foligno had a rough time while preparing for the Sabres’ 4-0 victory over Columbus. The winger got kicked in the mouth by a teammate during the morning skate, with blood and a tooth falling to the ice. He was OK by game time.
“Didn’t look all that pretty coming off the ice,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “A little nicked up through the lip and had some dental work.”
USA Hockey is holding its ninth annual “Hockey Weekend Across America,” with children ages 4 to 9 able to try hockey for free Saturday in Northtown Center at Amherst (9:30-10:20 a.m.), North Buffalo Ice Rink (4:30-5:30 p.m.) and Cornerstone CFCU Arena in Lockport (9-10 a.m.). See TryHockeyForFree.com for more details.
As part of the weekend, two 17-year-old officials from Western New York will meet and shadow NHL referees and linesmen prior to the Sabres hosting Pittsburgh on Sunday. The game, which will start at 12:30 p.m., is part of NBC’s tripleheader featuring six U.S.-based teams.
Bylsma, who has coached for USA Hockey, is amazed by the growth of the organization since he began playing in Michigan.
“My son is playing amateur hockey now,” Bylsma said, “and to not only see where we’re playing and who we’re playing but the quality of the players that we’re playing from all over the United States, it’s pretty amazing how far the game has grown.”
Robin Lehner, Mark Pysyk, Mike Weber and Martin Biron are in for a hair-dropping experience Saturday. The quartet of Sabres players and alumni will get their heads shaved as part of the “Bald for Bucks” program. Eichel, Zach Bogosian, Brian Gionta and Chad Johnson will do the trimming after a noon practice in First Niagara Center as children from Roswell Park Cancer Institute look on.
The players have raised more than $5,000, with donations accepted at Buffalo.BaldForBucks.org.