With captain Connor McDavid leading the way, Canada’s chances of winning a 21st IIHF world championship are looking good.
Having Aaron Ekblad, Colton Parayko, Mathew Barzal, Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly on board makes them look even better.
The 16-team tournament begins in the Danish cities of Herning and Copenhagen on Friday. Canada plays opening day against the Patrick Kane-led United States in Herning.
“It’s a real good team,” said Sean Burke, co-general manager of the Canadian squad with another former goalie, Martin Brodeur. “You’ve got a mix of some good young guys and some older, experienced guys.
“I think we have as good a chance as anyone to win.”
Canada will be gunning for a third gold medal in four years and has some winners back from previous triumphs, including Ekblad, Schenn and Jordan Eberle from the 2015 champions and McDavid and O’Reilly from the 2016 titleists.
Last year in Cologne, Germany, Canada lost the gold medal game 2-1 to Sweden in a shootout.
Organizers announced that 300,000 tickets have already been sold for the May 4-20 tournament, which will be held in Denmark for the first time.
The event has extra allure in that the Winter Olympics in February did not include NHL players for the first time since 1998, so some top attractions who may have balked at playing two international tournaments in the same year will wear their national jerseys at the world championship.
That includes McDavid, who led the NHL scoring race for a second straight season.
“Any time you get a top player like that, it helps the team and it gets other guys interested in coming,” said Burke. “Other guys want to play with him and be around him.”
McDavid will have Edmonton Oiler teammates Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse with him on Team Canada, while linemate Leon Draisaitl will suit up for Germany, the surprise Olympic silver medallists in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Kane and Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau will play for the Americans; Mikko Rantanen and Mikael Granlund are on the Finnish squad; and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikael Backlund and another Oiler, Adam Larsson, are among 10 NHL players for Sweden.
Russia’s mostly KHL team is led by former Detroit Red Wings ace Pavel Datsyuk and has six NHL players, including Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and Chicago Blackhawks forward Artem Anisimov.
Toronto centre Tomas Plekanec leads the Czech Republic.
The teams are split into two eight-team groups. They each play a round robin, with the top four from each group advancing to the quarter-finals.
Canada’s group stage opponents, in the order in which they will face them, are the U.S., South Korea, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Latvia and Germany. They will play at the Jyske Bank Boxen arena in Herning, which is on the Jutland peninsula 230 kilometres from the Danish capital.
The other group at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen has Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, France and Belarus.
Both rinks hold 12,500 spectators.
Nearly every year, the world championship goes without many stars whose NHL teams are in the playoffs, although roster spots are left open for some whose teams are knocked out in the first round.
Canada added Toronto goalie Curtis McElhinney, Colorado forward Tyson Yost and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and defenceman Ryan Murray when their clubs bowed out early.
Others players choose not to go because they are injured, tired, have contract issues or just had other plans, such as Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and New York Islanders centre John Tavares.
It doesn’t faze Burke.
“There are very few guys who are not banged up or need a rest,” he said. “You get the guys who are healthy and want to end the season on a good note.”
Canada, coached by Calgary’s Bill Peters, still managed to put together a strong side, although after McElhinney and Arizona backup Darcy Kuemper, they reached for 18-year-old Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro as a third goalie.
Other defencemen on the squad are Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot, Florida’s Joel Edmondson and the New York Islanders’ Ryan Pulock.
Other forwards are Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Vancouver’s Bo Horvat, Jaden Schwartz of St. Louis and the Islanders’ Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier.
Since 1931, Canada has won 20 gold, 12 silver and six bronze medals at the world championship.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press