Slovak vets Gaborik, Hossa, Chara are foundation of Team Europe's surprising success

Slovakian stalwarts Marian Hossa, left, and Zdeno Chara, along with countryman Marion Gaborik (not pictured), have provided veteran leadership for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

TORONTO -- In the Vah River valley in western Slovakia is the town of Trencin.

In the town of Trencin are the homes of three of the country's greatest hockey icons.

Every summer, Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik will regularly bump into one another and hang out.

Sometimes they'll drop by Gaborik's hockey camp, which takes place in the arena that Gaborik built with his own money to give back to the town that gave him the game.

Sometimes the Stanley Cup makes a visit, and the three stars and their friends and families will troop on up to Trencin Castle, which sits on a cliff overlooking the area, and celebrate their hockey glory and their shared past even though they've never been NHL teammates. Chara now plays for the Boston Bruins, Hossa for the Chicago Blackhawks and Gaborik for the Los Angeles Kings.

At the World Cup of Hockey, they've again been united as members of Team Europe. As they prepare for Sunday's matchup against Sweden (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) after unexpectedly qualifying for the semifinals, one wonders if they might get a chance to celebrate another victory in the town they call home. This weekend's semifinal winners will face off in a best-of-three series for the championship.

"It might not happen again," said Gaborik, the youngest of the Trencin trio at 34. "Our generation on the national level is kind of dying down a little bit, so it's definitely cool to hopefully play minimum three games here. It would be awesome to get it to that next level."

Team Europe is the oldest team in the World Cup. Its identity is starkly juxtaposed against the theme of this tournament, which has been all about the promise of the future, the allure of young talent such as Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Patrik Laine.

But these three Slovak giants also remind us of the beauty of experience.

"Once you get to know them, it's pretty clear why they've been in the league for so long and how they handle themselves," said Anze Kopitar of Slovenia, Team Europe captain and also Gaborik's teammate with the Kings. "It's just small little details or small little pieces that put the bigger picture together, and that's why they are who they are."

Combined, the three have played in 3,444 regular-season NHL games. They are the owners of five Stanley Cup rings. And if I can be a bit cheeky, they are the core of what might be termed the Old Guns squad here at the World Cup of Hockey.

"It's something new for everybody, this project," said Hossa, 37, who will enter the coming NHL season with 499 career goals. "It's lots of fun to be here."

Former NHL All-Star Miroslav Satan played a few games in Trencin during a brief contract dispute in the late 1990s. He recalled playing a game with a teenage Gaborik for the town team in the Slovak elite league. The talented Gaborik scored five goals, and Satan jokes that we need to ask who set up four of those goals.

Later Satan would play with Chara at the 2000 world championships, where Slovakia finished second to capture its first international hockey medal, a moment that still burns brightly for him.

As the general manager of Team Europe, it was natural for him to reach out to his old pals from Trencin to help form the nucleus of a team about which no one really had a clue what it might become.

These days it has become a team that is one win away from a surprise berth in the finals.

"I think we expected big things from them, and so far they've delivered," Satan said. "They're playing well. You look at that team, they are our core, they are guys who've won Stanley Cups before. We knew we could ask them to do a lot, and so far they've been doing it."

Like the North America under-24 team that generated so much attention but didn't advance from the preliminary round, Team Europe is a concept that might be one-and-done. Regardless, it's something the three Slovaks have embraced wholeheartedly.

"First few days was getting to know each other and make sure everybody understands the concept and everything. After that it was cool," said Gaborik, who scored the first goal of the 3-0 win over the United States in the first game of the tournament. "It's like an NHL team, kind of. You know you have a lot of nationalities on an NHL team, so it's nothing new to us."

Head coach Ralph Krueger admitted he felt there might be a little more pushback from the veteran players, especially given they had played so long for their native Slovakia. But the opposite has been true.

"I think what's surprised me the most is just how easy they've been to manage," Krueger said. "It's been amazing. ... They're almost like assistant coaches for us the whole time."

In the beginning, when the NHL and the players' union first contemplated how to fill out the tournament roster, they went to Chara to gauge his response. That his opinion was so valued is a measure of the respect Chara, 39, has, not just in Slovakia but in the game.

Not only has he embraced the idea, he has led the team, rebounding from a shaky start during pretournament games to become a force on the blue line.

"You've got to have fun playing," Chara said. "Maybe it's because of the importance of the tournament, the excitement of playing big games against the best players. I think it's a combination of that and obviously being on a new team. It's just exciting, and winning is exciting. It's fun."

At some point time will run out on these three, as it does on all athletes, even the great ones.

And so an opportunity like this, a chance to suit up with longtime friends against the best in the world, even if the jersey and some of the teammates are foreign, is to be cherished.

Just as the opportunity to watch them do it should be cherished.