TORONTO -- There is, quite simply, no feeling like representing one's country. There is no feeling like pulling a sweater over one's head with the colors or the crest or the flag. That is what young hockey dreams are made of, from Sweden and Finland to Norway, from Canada and the United States all the way to Slovenia.
Team Europe, well, playing for Team Europe is not exactly that.
That is not to denigrate the concept of playing for Team Europe, a composite team made up of players from eight European nations not including Russia, Sweden, Finland, or the Czech Republic, especially for players like Mats Zuccarello, whose Norwegian team would have little chance of staging an upset in the sort of best-on-best tournament represented by the World Cup of Hockey 2016.
But it does not feel the same. It just doesn't.
"In a perfect world, you would want to have your own country play in this tournament, but unfortunately the reality is that we don't have as many NHL players as we used to," said Marian Gaborik, whose Slovakia team could have, in the past, been considered good enough to get its own slot in this tournament.
"So they created this concept and I think we've gotten used to it. I think we treat it like an NHL team, which you have lots of different nationalities in an NHL team, as well."
The comparison seems apt. Most players have no real allegiance to their NHL clubs - outside of an outlier like, say, Boston-bred Jimmy Hayes with the Boston Bruins - when they are drafted or sign. That allegiance might grow over years of play, from friendships with teammates and true love of a city and, perhaps, a sense of history. But it is not there to start, it is not all-consuming, not like it is with one's country.
"This is a new team, you kind of don't look at it as a national team," Zuccarello said. "It's a fun team - we're just here to have fun, you know? Play good hockey and do our best and have fun. I think that's what we can really get out of it.
"Just cherish the moment, that this is our chance to play in a tournament like this. Hopefully one day Norway will be in this tournament, but as of right now it's hard for us to fight with the big dogs. I think it's cool for us to be representing Team Europe and be a part of this big tournament."
Where, now, Team Europe will be playing in the semifinals against Team Sweden on Sunday (1 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports). And the players have a chance to defeat their opponent, which Norway would not. Though Team Sweden will be favored against Team Europe, the latter has actually defeated the former already in this tournament, in the third game of the pretournament slate, back when no one exactly knew what this Team Europe could or would be.
Or how it would feel to play for it.
For some, this feeling is not an abstract conception. It is very real and very recent. Eleven of the players - from Denmark, Slovenia, Germany, Norway, and France - on the team's roster came to the World Cup of Hockey directly from Olympic qualifying, where Germany, Slovenia, and Norway clinched a spot in the 2018 PyeongChang Games.
"It's a little bit different," Team Europe center Anze Kopitar said, reflecting back on the experience of playing in qualifying games. "Obviously qualifying for the Olympics, it's a big thing. … Our country (Slovenia) really is a nation of 135 registered players that we can scrap up. For us to qualify again for the Olympics, I think that's a huge thing.
"And then, if I can compare it to this, nobody likes to lose obviously, so coming here we wanted to, in some way, showcase ourselves that this can work, that we're not just here to be three-and-out."
Which is something that, unfortunately, so many of these players from smaller countries, from non-hockey powers, are all too familiar with. As Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger said, "These are eight nations that are used to playing for relegation at world tournaments and trying to avoid that." But not in this tournament, where Team Europe has surprised to make it through the preliminary round.
Still, even with little hope in some of those tournaments, there's something bigger that they're playing for, their homelands and their hometowns, their colors and histories. The World Cup is not the same, and yet there is still an element of that, still some of the feeling that comes from international best-on-best competition.
"It feels like you're playing for a club team," Zuccarello said. "At the same time when you're out there you're playing against a national team and you have your country's flag on your shoulders and I think that's really special too.
"It's kind of a mixed feeling, but I think everyone appreciates being here. This is a chance to be here and I think we all want to take this as a really cool thing. We had a really fun time being here and hopefully we're going to enjoy it for a little bit more."
So, no, it doesn't feel the same as playing for their countries. The joy is not the same. The determination is not the same. The pride is not the same. That doesn't mean it's lacking, just that it's different. And in that difference is opportunity, opportunity that they wouldn't otherwise get. So, sure, this is not like putting on a Norway jersey.
But, as Zuccarello said, "This is our chance."