The 2016 World Cup of Hockey is finally here. The tournament begins in Toronto on Saturday with a pair of games involving many of the world's best players, including a whole bunch of Blackhawks. Don't pretend you're not a little excited.
The eight-team tournament, which is being broadcast on ESPN, should be a lot of fun to watch, even if you don't quite have the rooting interests you'd have with the Hawks in a Stanley Cup Final. Just pick a team -- maybe one with a Blackhawk on it! -- sit back and enjoy the fact that you don't have to watch regular season baseball anymore. Here's the complete schedule with start times and TV information so you'll be ready to catch all the action.
There are also a lot of reasons to be excited about the World Cup beyond the fact that it's the return of hockey. With Hawks fans in mind, here are a few things that will be worth watching throughout the tournament.
Hawks getting the ESPN treatment
Now, around these parts, there's no shortage of love for the Hawks. But the reality is that hockey in general isn't all that popular in the United States, and you could probably go to large parts of the country where they have no idea who Jonathan Toews is. So it really doesn't hurt to have these guys playing regularly on ESPN -- the go-to sports place for a lot of fans -- for the next two weeks.
Not that a few games on ESPN will suddenly end hockey's place as a niche sport in the U.S., but it could help some of these great athletes be appreciated in circles where they're typically not discussed. I mean, ESPN is breaking up its loaded Saturday slate of college football eyeball magnets to broadcast a freaking hockey game. This is good.
On the other hand, we'll probably have to listen to Stephen A. Smith analyze hockey at some point. I'm less excited for that part.
Kempny, Pokka out to prove themselves
We know what most of the Blackhawks playing in the World Cup are capable of. Toews, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin are NHL superstars. Many of the others are at least above-average regulars. That's typically how you get invited to play in the World Cup.
But there are a pair of Blackhawks defensemen playing in Toronto who still have a lot to prove. Czech Republic's Michal Kempny and Finland's Ville Pokka are both trying to carve out roles with the Hawks for the upcoming season. The World Cup will represent a huge opportunity for each player to make an impression against some of the toughest competition possible.
Kempny is lined up as the No. 1 defenseman for the Czechs, ahead of other NHL players in Roman Polak, Andrej Sustr, Zbynek Michalek, Jakub Nakladal and Michal Jordan. That's not exactly a stacked group, but on the flip side, I think it would've been somewhat discouraging if Kempny was having trouble emerging here. Instead, Kempny is getting a lot put on his plate in this tournament, and he's said that it's given him extra confidence. For someone who's angling at a bottom-pairing gig in Chicago, this all sounds highly encouraging.
And then there's Pokka, who won't play nearly as big a role for Finland but still has a chance to show the progress he's made on the ice. The Finns have several young defensemen who will be sharing playing time behind the bigger names of Olli Maatta, Sami Vatanen and Rasmus Ristolainen. Pokka managed to earn a spot in the spring after winning a silver medal at the 2016 World Championships, and he'll be one of the most intriguing players for Hawks fans to watch in this tournament.
Corey Crawford watch
For Canada's opening game against the Czech Republic, the team is going with Carey Price in goal and Corey Crawford as his backup. It's fair to assume that Price will be the Canadian starter throughout this tournament, but it'll be interesting to see if Crawford can somehow get into action.
Why is that interesting? Because Crawford has never actually suited up in a real game for the Canadian senior national team before. The country is usually pretty stacked -- Braden Holtby is scratched for the opener with Crawford backing up -- and as a result, Crow has never appeared in an Olympics or World Championships. And because he was a late bloomer on the ice, he didn't get those opportunities as part of the junior team, either.
So here's to hoping that Crawford, who is indeed one of the better goaltenders in the game, can at least get a few minutes of action at some point. He's got the fancy mask all ready. He's earned it ... even if it's entirely reasonable to acknowledge that Price should and will be THE GUY for Canada in this tournament.
To maximize good mojo so nobody gets hurt
Tyler Seguin was the first notable casualty of the World Cup with a hairline fracture in his foot. He's going to miss all of the Stars' training camp and likely part of the beginning of the regular season while recovering. So clearly we gotta watch this thing to try to appease the hockey gods so they don't inflict any more damage.