The World Cup of Hockey is here.
The international ice hockey tournament organized by the NHL and NHLPA was inaugurated in 1996, with the last tournament being held in 2004 when Canada took home gold. After a 12-year hiatus, the World Cup of Hockey is back and better than ever with a new eight-team format that features the game's brightest stars playing for the best hockey nations (and two fake teams) in the hockey world.
The tournament will now commence every four years, with the upcoming one taking place at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto from Sept. 17-Oct. 1.
If you're thinking to yourself, "this is just another way for the NHL to make some extra cash ahead of the season," then you're absolutely right. But don't let evil Gary Bettman and Co. ruin what could be a wildly entertaining tournament. If the thought of all the best players being available for an international hockey tournament in Canada doesn't get you pumped enough, here are five reasons why the World Cup of Hockey should have you on the edge of your seat for the coming weeks:
1) Early Hockey: It's been about three months since Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in mid-June. That means for the last three months hockey fans have been sulking, waiting (not so) patiently for something of interest. Sure we got 30 minutes of insanity when Steven Stamkos re-signed with Tampa, P.K. Subban got traded (why?), and Taylor Hall got moved (again, why?), but other than that it has been a pretty dull three months.
But guess what, hockey fans? Your prayers have been answered.
For the first time since 2004, we will have an international hockey tournament ahead of the NHL season. And not only should you be excited about the prospect of early hockey, but with the NHL seriously considering not attending the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, this could be the last legitimate best-on-best international hockey tournament for four years. That's a long time. But at least we have early hockey, right?
2) Canada vs. USA: As we saw in their back-to-back pre-tournament duel, Canada vs. USA makes for some exciting hockey. Although Canada may be the tournament's obvious favourite, Team USA was built to beat Team Canada, and judging by their split-decision pre-tournament games, the US just might have a chance. And the games will be littered with stars, from Canada's Sidney Crosby and John Tavares to the Americans' 2016 Hart Trophy-winner Patrick Kane and their trio of strong goaltenders.
Not only will the Canada-US rivalry be competitive, the level of intensity and chippiness between the teams is unparalleled in international hockey. The two pre-tournament games included a healthy amount of scrums and dirty hits, resulting in a total of 83 penalty minutes being handed out along with a game misconduct to Ryan Kesler for a hit from behind. And that was just pre-tournament action.
Team Canada and Team USA are both in Group A, meaning they will play at least one game against each other and could likely meet again in the final. This should be fun.
3) Carey Price Is Back: He is among the most dominant players in the NHL, and back playing for Team Canada after an injury-riddled season limited him to 12 games, not surprisingly keeping the Montreal Canadiens out of the playoff picture.
The 29-year-old Canadiens' goaltender was coming off the best season of his career, having won the Vezina and Hart trophies. Now recovered from the lower-body injury that derailed his 2015-16 season, Price is back and ready to return to his former dominance.
Although he looked understandably shaky during his two pre-tournament games, Price will be Canada's No. 1 goaltender for the tournament. When healthy, Price has the ability to not only be reliable and keep things calm in Canada's end, but he also has the potential to take over a game with saves that will have snipers holding their heads in awe.
If Carey Price is back to his former self, hockey fans are in for a treat.
4) Team North America: For the real reason people will be tuning into the World Cup of Hockey, look no further than Team North America.
Composed of superstars from Canada and the US aged 23 and under, Team North America represents the future of hockey and will be the fastest, most exciting team to watch in the tournament. Highlighted by young stars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Drouin, Team North America is a true underdog and the team to cheer for in this tournament.
This is also head coach Todd McLellan's chance to try out Connor McDavid as a captain. Although it may seem ridiculous to let a 19-year-old captain an international team, it will be interesting to analyze how captain McDavid carries himself and his team, before potentially earning the job with the Oilers as the youngest captain in NHL history.
Plus, who could resist watching McDavid and Eichel, the 2015 No.1 and No.2 overall picks, respectively, play on the same line? Sign us up.
5) 3-on-3 Overtime: What is better than watching NHL teams compete in a five minute test of speed, skill, and fitness during end-to-end 3-on-3 overtime action? Watching international teams do it, of course.
For the first time in international competition, the World Cup of Hockey will feature a five-minute 3-on-3 overtime format for the group stage. That means five minutes of 3-on-3 overtime featuring the best skaters and goalies in the world, all motivated to earn a crucial extra point to help them advance past the group stage. We are talking a potential showdown featuring Drew Doughty, Crosby, and Stamkos going up against Dustin Byfuglien, Joe Pavelski, and Kane. Or Dmitry Orlov, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin face off against Erik Karlsson and the Sedin twins. It doesn't get much better than that.
Bottom line: The World Cup of Hockey is going to be an incredibly entertaining tournament featuring the best hockey players in the world. And what more can we ask for? After all, it is only September.
For more World Cup of Hockey stories, check out our full coverage here.