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World Cup of Hockey breathes life into sleepy September

Blackhawks star Patrick Kane leads Team USA into the World Cup of Hockey later this month. (Getty Images)

The World Cup of Hockey is not the Olympics, and likely never will be, no matter how badly the NHL wants it to be. It’s a made-for-TV, jersey-selling cash grab that will give the NHL a national spotlight — back on ESPN for the first time sine 2004 — during the thick of baseball pennant races and the start of football season.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a heck of a lot of fun. Players and fans alike will gladly take a best-on-best international tournament over monotonous training camps and lifeless preseason games.

“I like different,” said Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will play for Sweden along with Marcus Kruger. “I like to mix things up. It’s going to be a fun tournament — a lot of great players playing in the biggest hockey city in the world. So I’m excited to play for my home country and put that jersey on. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The eight teams in the World Cup open training camps on Monday. Each team will play two pre-tournament games before descending on Toronto for the two-week tournament from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1. After a week of pool play, four teams will advance to the semifinals, with the two winners meeting in a best-of-three series for the World Cup, which was last contested in 2004, when Canada won.

The Canadians — who won the last two Olympic gold medals — are favorites again, with a ridiculously stacked roster that includes Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and a host of other superstars. With an unrivaled defensive corps, Sweden is another strong contender.

Patrick Kane leads the United States. Other Hawks playing are Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov (Russia), Michal Kempny (Czech Republic), Ville Pokka (Finland), and Marian Hossa, who will play for Team Europe. Joel Quenneville is an assistant coach for Mike Babcock’s Canada squad, and Stan Bowman is co-manager of Team North America, an intriguing group of Americans and Canadians 23 and younger, including Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Brandon Saad.

“The excitement for our team is going to be up front,” Bowman said. “We should be high-powered, offensive, score a lot of goals, fun to watch. It’s such a short tournament, it’s hard to predict where it’ll go. They don’t know they should be intimidated.”

Only the Tampa Bay Lightning will have more players in the World Cup than the Hawks, who have 10 (it would have been 13, but Duncan Keith pulled out to continue rehabbing his knee, Teuvo Teravainen was traded to Carolina, and Christian Ehrhoff was not re-signed). While that will make for an unusual start to training camp later this month, with many of the team’s top players still in Toronto while a bevy of prospects and role players fight for jobs without Quenneville watching, the Hawks believe it will give them an advantage when the puck drops on the 2016-17 season on Oct. 12.

“For players going to the World Cup, I don’t know if you can prepare any better for the season,” Kane said. “You’re going to be playing at maybe the highest level that you ever have. During the Olympics, you have players coming in during the middle of season, flying overseas — players are tired. Now, players are going to be coming in rested, and teams are going to be as prepared as possible. It’s going to be fun for us.”

Had it been a typical summer for the Hawks, the World Cup might have been more of a burden. But after ending their season in June three straight years, the Hawks were bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the St. Louis Blues. It’s been a whopping 131 days since the Hawks took the ice in an official capacity, so the World Cup couldn’t have come at a better time.

The NHL, of course, hopes that the World Cup concept will take off and replace the Olympics in players’ eyes. Whether the NHL will participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, or not remains an open question. Players clearly want to go. And owners clearly don’t want to continue shutting down the league for three weeks in February every four years, while risking injuries to their biggest stars. The World Cup might not ever be an adequate replacement for the players, but they’re looking forward to it nonetheless.

“It’s exciting,” Quenneville said. “It’s a privilege for the guys who get a chance to play in a great environment on a very competitive stage. It’s the best players in the world, and you get to play among them. I think guys will be excited about it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus