Team USA's last game a fitting exit after a brutal tournament

Team USA has plenty to hang its head about. Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press/AP

TORONTO -- With all due respect to T.S. Eliot, when it was finally over, it ended not with a bang but a whimper, a long, mournful whimper.

Of course, Team USA had been emotionally, if not technically, gone long before the final whistle blew on a 4-3 loss to a Czech Republic team most had considered the weakest in the eight-team World Cup of Hockey.

Thursday's loss, naturally, put that debate to bed as the Americans finished a desultory 0-3, putting the final piece of punctuation on this most lamentable of international tournaments.

Three games, no wins, five goals scored, two by defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Zero goals for defending NHL scoring champ and MVP Patrick Kane.

At one point Thursday, veteran defenseman Ryan Suter inadvertently stickhandled the puck into his own net while trying to clear it.

By Friday morning, there will be little to remind anyone that the U.S. team had actually been at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, except maybe a little stain like the oil spot an old car leaves on your driveway.

Perhaps the best-case scenario is that this team will be remembered for how quickly it went from a plucky, blue-collar squad hoping to knock off the world's best to become quite simply placeholders in the pantheon of U.S. hockey history.

Because just as we were watching dumbfounded while the Americans imploded, losing 3-0 to Team Europe and then 4-2 to Canada before Thursday's dismal finale, the future of not just American hockey -- maybe even the game itself -- was capturing hearts and minds.

Team North America didn't advance to the semifinal round in spite of going 2-1, but in their brief time at the World Cup of Hockey, there wasn't a more exciting group to watch.

They were, in many ways, the anti-Team USA: joyful, driving to the net with abandon, rising to the occasion -- even if they were denied a place in the semifinals on a tie-breaker.

Imagine in two years if the NHL returns to the Olympics in South Korea, or in four years to the World Cup of Hockey (assuming the event isn't just going to be shoved back into the hockey closet for another dozen years), what a Team USA might look like.

How about Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews as your 1-2 centers, maybe setting up Patrick Kane, one of a handful of U.S. forwards on Team USA who would be considered a lock to make the next best-on-best tournament?

Go down the list from Team North America of players who will be pushing for places on the American team in the next best-on-best tournament: Johnny Gaudreau, Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck will vie for forward positions while Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and Shayne Gostisbehere will be factors along the blue line.

But as Team USA staggers off into the sunset, let's pause to remind ourselves of the human beings that don those jerseys.

It's something that has been easy to forget in the hours and days since they lurched out of the gate with a 3-0 loss to Team Europe that pretty much sealed their fate at this tournament.

The criticism has been relentless and the attacks often person and sometimes, shockingly, from former teammates or former Team USA players.

At one point in the first period of Thursday's meaningless game, a group of fans chanted "We want Kessel," a reference to two-time U.S. Olympian Phil Kessel, whose postgame tweet taking a shot at the Americans after the Canada loss went viral.

But know this, however poorly this team played, these are players who took time off this summer to train for the tournament, took time away from families and vacations to attend training camp, and traveled hither and yon for pretournament games.

For many of these players, Thursday's popped balloon of a game played before a crowd seemingly of family and friends will be the final memory they will have of playing in a red, white and blue jersey.

"I wish I could play with these guys every day," defenseman Jack Johnson said.

That is not an empty sentiment.

No one could have imagined this would turn into such a train wreck. And even as the players shouldered responsibility for not getting the job done, there was still something more than a little melancholy about watching them leave the media center for the last time.

"Each group has an opportunity to do something special, and we definitely didn't take advantage of it," said McDonagh, a two-time Olympian. "Same thing in Sochi with that group. Obviously, we talked about a step back in Sochi, the way we finished there, and this is about as low as it can get I'm sure as far as where USA Hockey has been in the last handful of international tournaments."

I felt especially bad for David Backes, another two-time Olympian, who was a healthy scratch. So was Erik Johnson, who earned a silver medal with Backes in Vancouver. It would be a surprise if either was part of the next best-on-best U.S. roster.

The fact they weren't in the lineup is yet another sign of what appeared to be a significant disconnect within this group because there were myriad options for players to sit other than these two veterans.

The fact these two players were denied a chance at one last moment wearing their country's colors was a shame, simply another thread in the ugly tapestry woven by this team at this most forgettable of tournaments.