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September 13, 2016

Why the World Cup of Hockey deserves your attention

The days of waiting for players to develop has turned into a fast track to success or failure and here in Philadelphia, that fast lane is filled with big names like Ben Simmons, Shayne Gostisbehere and now – and especially – Carson Wentz.

Wentz looked like the real deal in his rookie debut on Sunday when he was remarkable in the Eagles’ season-opening win against the woeful Cleveland Browns. Wentz looked like a savvy veteran quarterback in the victory and there is every reason to hope the team has found a franchise quarterback.

More and more, youth is served across all of sports, which is why Flyers fans – and hockey fans in general – might want to glance in as the World Cup of Hockey shifts into gear for real this week.

For the most part, it seems to be a bad idea to stage a non-NHL hockey tournament during which a star player might get injured. Yet, it will be fascinating to watch a collection of young players stitched together under the flag of Team North America. (In the first place, the flag itself is pretty cool, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out the ultra-modern logo and uniforms for Team North America.)

But it’s the young guys with wheels in those jerseys that will make this tourney interesting.

Let’s face it – this is a very tough sell to hockey fans. The days of spiteful games between Canada and the old Soviet Union are long gone, and it is very difficult for US fans to get a real edge for games against the Northern neighbors.

More than that, the NFL has already had its opening kickoff, so you want to talk about being pushed to the background – even the presidential election gets pushed aside. So what are the chances of a pre-season hockey tourney getting some of the spotlight?

In a nice touch of nostalgia, the tourney will be televised on ESPN with that great hockey music from back in the day – but there is truly nothing “back in the day” about Team North America – a team comprised of under-23 players.

If you get the chance, take a look at Team North America, which plays in a preliminary pool with Finland, Sweden and Russia.

What the NHL should hope for is a scenario where Team North America winds up playing Canada and the United States, a matchup that would have been better served if the teams were in the same pool from the beginning.

Just a tip here: Your eyes might be trained on the Eagles, but if you are a hockey fan take some time to check out Team North America over the next couple of weeks.

In any event, Team North America will let you watch a remarkable collection of young wheels led by captain Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ star who has a chance to be his generation’s version of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

In addition to McDavid the forward crew includes Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Johnny Gaudreau, a local South Jersey product now with the Calgary Flames. Those three have played some shifts together and it could be a real show.

The team also includes the flashy Gostisbehere and Flyers center Sean Couturier, an old man on the roster at 23.

The inclusion of Couturier is notable on a couple of levels. First of all, he’s has been around long enough that many fans are likely surprised he would still be eligible for a Young Guns team. Couturier will be used as a shut-down center to play against the best offensive centers on the other teams.

Couturier has spent his young career with a boatload of defensive zone starts against some of the game’s best forwards, including Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin. It is sometimes maddening to watch the Flyers struggle for goals, wishing that Couturier could push to the next level, but his real value is as a defensive specialist, and you’ll see that value in this tourney.

As for Gostisbehere … well, in the same rookie class as McDavid and Eichel, Ghost made a name for himself. He appears to be the offensive threat on the blueline Flyers fans have coveted for a couple of decades.

There is every likelihood that Gostisbehere is at the forefront of a youth movement for the Flyers at the defense position that is sure to include Ivan Provorov this season and eventually, the likes of Travis Sanheim.

Just a tip here: Your eyes might be trained on the Eagles, but if you are a hockey fan take some time to check out Team North America over the next couple of weeks.

You won’t be sorry.