The undeniable appeal of international sporting tournaments is the allure of Best vs Best.
It’s flag-waving nationalism modeled after the Olympics. The IIHF World Championships provides a lot of that, especially the color: painted faces, national team jerseys, anthems and familiar fight songs.
Best versus best is more than just nation vs nation, even in the team sport environment currently taking place in Slovakia. If you are lucky, you get premier individuals going head to head: Bird vs Magic on the hardwood; Gretzky-Lemieux on the ice; Clemens vs Bonds on the diamond. Once in a while you get two future professional icons facing off while still waiting to make the jump, and that is what takes place Monday. The consensus top two NHL draft picks Jack Hughes of Team USA and Kaapo Kakko of Finland will square off in Group A round robin play.
Unlike boxing, tennis or the aforementioned pitcher versus batter scenario, Hughes and Kakko are part of a team setting, and may only face each other head-to-head for a few shifts per period. But because of the annual hype that grows each year over the NHL’s #1 prospect, having a tournament where the two top picks face off against each other is akin to Nirvana for draft-junkies looking to settle an argument.
Thanks to the IIHF, this World Championship represents Roman Numeral II in the Kakko-Hughes draft preview, because they also matched up in the U-20 World Championship (A.K.A. World Juniors) this past January. That matchup in Vancouver clearly went Kakko’s way. His team won the gold at the expense of the Americans, and he scored the golden goal to steal the headlines. Although no North American journalist goes on the record speaking a negative word against the future celebrity, Hughes underachieved at the World Juniors, his lack of size apparently an issue as he succumbed to injury during against older competition in Vancouver.
If you ask any hockey fan in Helsinki, and that is essentially their whole population, they all think Kakko is the best player outside the NHL, hands down. Their argument has been buttressed by Kakko’s play in this World Championship: five goals in his first two games, lighting up elite hockey nations Canada and Slovakia. He has become a global hockey sensation with his scoring repertoire: slick hands in front of the net; 50-foot full windup bombs into the top corner.
Kakko has been playing with men all season long for TPS in Finland’s elite league. He averaged a goal every two games playing with the best Finns outside the NHL. His national team coaches insisted he stay in Finland during last month’s U-18 World Championship, where he could have matched up with Hughes in yet another IIHF championship. But his days of playing with boys is a thing of the past; this 6’2” manchild has already proven that he can thrive against the men, something the 5’10” Jack Hughes has not.
If you have tuned in to watch the World Championships from Slovakia, you may have noticed Kakko playing with a smile. Based on his performance at the World Juniors and the Finnish elite league and now in Slovakia, the guys has nothing to prove. He is entirely at home playing at this level of competition against the men. Hughes on the other hand, has been placed alongside the best forwards on Team USA but has yet to manage a goal.
Monday’s Finland-USA game won’t settle any arguments; the North American hockey establishment has anointed the American Hughes as the top pick; draft lottery winners New Jersey have all but conceded to their fans that Hughes is coming to Newark. But New York Rangers coach David Quinn and his management team does not feel anything like a bridesmaid in this contest. The Rangers are well represented at these World Championships. You can see them in the upper reaches of Steel Arena during games, and outside the Finnish dressing room afterwards. They all resemble Cheshire Cats, the ones that can’t quite contain their confident smiles.
Hockey fans around the world can make up their own minds Monday: the 5’10” Hughes or the 6’2” Kakko. Seeing is believing.