Every good competition needs more than a hometown favourite. It needs a villain. Somebody to dislike.
Hockey’s world under-17 event here this week — it’s not a world championship when the Russians and Swedes aren’t involved — is no different.
So without further ado, we give you Team USA.
The Stars and Stripes are usually enough to get the blood flowing in any Canadian hockey fan. The Yanks took over from the Russians as Canada’s Public Enemy No. 1 a while ago.
Why let the fact these kids are just 16 years old get in the way?
Besides, it’s this very same USA Hockey program that ended Canada’s run of gold medals at the World Junior Championship a year ago.
Uncle Sam’s 16-year-olds won this event last year, too, and come in as the favourites.
Just ask them.
“I think it’s us,” forward Stefan Matteau was saying, Tuesday. “We’re the defending champs... I’m hoping it’s us. We’re looking good this year.”
Matteau (yes, he’s the son of the former NHLer of the same name, who, incidentally, was born in Quebec) obviously doesn’t mind having a bull’s-eye on his half-American, half-Canadian back.
“I like the pressure,” Matteau said. “I like competition.”
He’s going to get it.
Of the five Canadian teams, Ontario is usually the strongest, while Team West, half of whom are homegrown lads, will no doubt get a lift from the crowds.
But the Yanks, who took on Team West in an exhibition game in Portage la Prairie Tuesday night in advance of Wednesday’s tournament openers, might just have the most interesting, and sizable, collection of talent.
Aside from Matteau, a 6-foot-1 chunk of still-growing beef who tips the scales at 207 pounds, there’s 6-foot-3 defenceman Seth Jones, whose dad, Ronald (aka, Popeye) carved out an 11-year NBA career.
Jones, though, chose hockey, in part because you’re allowed to run into people.
“I just love the intensity,” he said. “It’s non-stop.”
Asked about the team to beat this week, Jones sounded as confident as Matteau.
“We’re not really focused on just beating one team,” he said. “We’re most focused on winning the tournament, overall.”
It seems watching other U.S. teams win at this level, and higher, has fuelled these kids with a confidence American teams might have lacked in the past — even when playing against Canadians, on Canadian soil.
“It helps,” Jones acknowledges. “I know we can compete with them, or beat ’em.”
“It all starts where we are,” added Matteau. “It starts here and ends there (at the World Juniors).”
Head coach and former Winnipeg Jets forward Danton Cole describes his team as “blue-collar,” without the clear-cut star of American teams of the past.
“I don’t know that we have a Patrick Kane on this team, or a Phil Kessel,” the coach said. “We’re not real fancy.”
No, but they’re the one real “team” here, playing year-round against older competition in the U.S. Junior League, which should give it an edge.
Speaking of edge, it also has Henrik Samuelsson, the son of former NHLer Ulf, one of the most hated players of his era.
As an old Bruins fan, it was tempting to give the kid hell for his dad’s treatment of Cam Neely a couple of decades ago.
What Cole said made me think twice, though.
“He’s got a lot of Ulf in him, believe it or not,” Cole said.
Not to mention he’s 6-foot-2, 195 pounds.
“I play a little more offensive game than him,” is how Samuelsson compares his game with his dad’s. “But you’ve got to have that edge, too.”
But he insists he’s not an agitator like the old man was.
“No, that’s not my game. He was good at that.”
So Manitobans won’t dislike the Samuelsson name by the end of this tourney?
“Nah,” he said. Then a pause, and a grin. “They might.”
Like we said, every good competition needs a villain.
Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or 632-2788.