The turning point for Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey may have come before the tournament even started. Down 5-1 after the first period of a pre-tournament tune-up game against the darling of the tournament, Team North America, the team of many countries took stock of where it stood and where it was going.
After having their lunch handed to them by a 4-0 score in the first pre-tournament game against the kids, Team Europe knew it was at a crossroads. “We were down one goal to nine after playing together for four periods as a team,” said Team Europe coach Ralph Kruger after his squad’s shocking 3-0 beating of Team USA in the first game of the tournament. “What we spoke about in that intermission was, ‘Either we pack up and roll over and go home or we fight together to build an identity. And that’s when identities are born.”
That was certainly when something was born with Team Europe. With the exception of an empty net goal late in the second game, which turned out to be a 7-4 loss to Team North America, Team Europe has outscored its opponents 12-3 since then. “If you’re a loser and you have no character, you collapse,” Kruger said. “If you’re loaded with character like we are, you come together. So I thank the kids for spanking us so hard because we had adversity early, which brought us together and really clarified what we needed to do and the commitment we needed to do it.”
Not many observers gave Team Europe much of a chance in this tournament. It seemed the Europeans were too old, too slow, too accustomed to entering international tournaments as cannon fodder for the more powerful nations of the world. Kruger talked before the tournament about the pride factor. Even though there is no flag for which to play for this team, it is a team that is playing for each other. When the Europeans defeated Sweden 6-2 in their final tune-up game, that represented a huge victory for many of the players, some of whom had never beaten the Swedes before with their home countries.
What Team Europe did best was capitalize on its chances and get outstanding goaltending, two essential ingredients for any underdog team. Even though the Americans outshot Europe 35-17 in the game, they did not get a lot of second looks after goalie Jaroslav Halak made the first stop. They did a terrific job of clearing out rebounds and their puck management was spectacular. When it came to carrying the puck and getting it to good areas, Team Europe did everything Team USA failed to do.
“More than anything, I think it was the game with the puck that gave us space,” Kruger said. “To have a low shot count at the 30-minute mark was what our hope was defensively. But then we created that many chances offensively and that was a compliment to the group and how lethal we were on the chances we had."
So now Team Europe has gone from a curiosity to threat in this tournament. It has put itself into an excellent position in a pool where it now has a legitimate chance to grab one of the top two spots and advance to the semifinal. For a while there, it looked as though this team was going to be overwhelmed and outmatched. Now it has to be respected for its quick strike ability and its character in the face of a huge challenge. Kruger pointed out that there is no team that has more international hockey experience than this one and what it might lack in foot speed, it makes up for in veteran savvy and an ability to pounce on mistakes.
To be sure, this is not a team that is cute and cuddly anymore. It may not win the tournament. It may not even make the semifinal. But it has succeeded in making things interesting right from the start.
“We didn’t see ourselves as just a sideshow. Ever,” Kruger said. “This group has always been building to do this, what happened today. We knew we needed a perfect game. We needed a perfect night and from front to back…We didn’t come here to just have one nice game. We came here to compete and now we’ve got a lot of work to do.”