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World Cup Of Hockey 2004 Preview

Well folks, the most anticipated tournament since the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics is upon us.  The second ever World Cup Of Hockey, which was derived from the former Canada Cup tournament, will be played on North American soil and will showcase the world’s best, and who better to be front and centre than the best of the best, the superstars we see night in and night out during the winter months in the NHL.

What was originally planned as an event happening every four years has taken eight years for us to see another tournament materialize, thanks mostly in part to the NHL taking part in the Winter Olympics in Nagano and Salt Lake City.

If you think the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are intense, wait until you see this.  Eight world teams will be showcased, every one of them with a legitimate shot at the Cup which very eerily resembles the NHL’s “Holy Grail” (although designer Frank Gehry will beg to differ).

The United States are the defending champions from the very first World Cup of Hockey in 1996, and they should be at least a sure shot for the semifinals, as should be the team they defeated, Canada.  While Canada got their revenge in 2002 in Utah, you know there’s still a lot of unfinished business here, and don’t be at all surprised to see the storied rivalry lock horns again.  I’m not just talking exhibition or round robin here (although the exhibition game I saw had the atmosphere of a playoff game).  This time it’s personal.

The tournament itself will consist of two divisions of four teams: The North American (NA) division, which will consist of Canada, the U.S.A., Russia, and Slovakia; and the European (EU) division, made up of the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and Sweden.  As is the case in every international tournament, every team will play a round robin against teams in their own division to determine seeding for the quarterfinals.  From here it will be a winner take all elimination grudge match.  After the quarterfinal matches, the teams will crossover divisions for the semifinals, which would enable two teams from the same division to play in the final, should it end up that way.  This was how Canada was able to play against the U.S. in the last World Cup.  The first place overall team will actually get a bye to the semi-finals, leaving the other seven teams to duke it out.  Have I mentioned this will be a great tournament?

During the preliminary round robin, the NA games will be played in Montreal, Toronto, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and the EU games will be played overseas, naturally, at various venues in Finland, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.  Canadian training camps and three exhibition games are held in Ottawa, and the U.S. plays a few games in Columbus, Ohio.

We are about to witness some of the best hockey the world has to offer, and unless the NHL and NHLPA get their act together before the final game on September 14th, something which doesn’t appear likely to happen at this stage, it may end up being the only hockey we see all year.  So sit back, enjoy, and may the best team win!

North American Division

CANADA

Team Canada not only won the Gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics, but they’ve also won back to back World Championships, thanks mostly in part to “Captain Canuck”, Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth.  He would be the first to tell you he’d rather have played for the Stanley Cup these past couple of years, but a Gold Medal two years in a row at one of the hardest tournaments to win is certainly not chopped liver.  When the preliminary rosters were announced, he was a lock to be on this team, although he clearly won’t have anywhere near as big a role as he played at the last two World tournaments.

Mario Lemieux took the most part of last season off to repair an ailing hip, and from what I’ve seen so far in practice and exhibition action, is as ready as he’s ever going to be.  Probably the biggest story going into this tournament is the reunion of Lemieux and Gretzky, arguably two of the greatest players ever.  Of course Gretzky is no longer playing, but his hockey sense and love for the game made him a natural selection as executive director of this team.  With Lemieux healthy, it was only fitting he be named captain of this team.

Not one team in this tournament is without players who would have played had they not been injured, and Canada is no exception.  Already without “the two towers” Rob Blake and Chris Pronger on defense, and workhorse Steve Yzerman at centre, goaltender Ed Belfour also dropped out of the tournament to have surgery on his ailing back (which by the way was deemed a successful procedure, which means Eddie the Eagle will make a full recovery).  Does this stop the country who invented hockey?  No way!  With arguably the most depth of any team in the world, Canada quickly replaced all of these players with the likes of Jay Bouwmeester, Scott Hannan, Vincent Lecavalier and Jose Theodore, all of which have already played a big role for Canada in the early going.  So far Lecavalier has seen action alongside Mario and I have to tell you, it is amazing what these two players can do.

Canada is strongest in goal, with three time Stanley Cup winner and Olympic Gold Medalist Martin Brodeur leading the pack, along with this year’s World Champion Roberto Luongo, and Jose Theodore replaces the injured Belfour.  All three have played very well so far in exhibition play, and the Canadian coaching staff should feel comfortable putting either one of them between the pipes.

On defense, Colorado Avalanche veteran Adam Foote played at the last World Cup in ’96 , as well as in Nagano and Salt Lake City.  Ed Jovanovski, Eric Brewer and Scott Niedermayer also make their return to an always strong blue line.  Calgary Flames’ Robyn Regehr joins Team Canada for the first time, and deserves to be here given his performance in the NHL playoffs.  Wade Redden of the Ottawa Senators finally makes it on the Canadian roster, something which has eluded him for the past three tournaments.

Canada is icing an all star lineup, with the likes of the aforementioned Lemieux, Lecavalier, and the Tampa Bay connection of Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards.  Returning from the Olympics are Jarome Iginla, Joe Sakic, previously mentioned Ryan Smyth, and Simon Gagne.  Team Canada has clearly decided to go with more youth and speed this time around, as they bring San Jose star Patrick Marleau into the fold, along with Phoenix Coyotes’ Shane Doan, and Dallas Stars’ Brenden Morrow.  Some new NHL veterans also join the team this time around.  Joe Thornton of the Boston Bruins finally makes the team, as does Selke trophy winner Kirk Maltby of the Detroit Red Wings.

So far, the results of a veteran/youth mix have been astounding.  Both in practice and exhibition, these players are fast, and even though they haven’t played all summer, they are getting it together at the right time and you can see the chemistry and skill on the ice.  This will be the team to beat in this tournament, by far, with their American counterparts coming a very close second (more to come).

As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and not only does Gretzky return as the big boss, so too does head coach Pat Quinn with assistants Jacques Martin and Ken Hitchcock.  You can be sure the NHL rivalries will take a back seat here as Canada looks to remain on top, not only at the coaching level but amongst the players (Iginla vs. Lecavalier comes to mind).

Prediction: 1st in division, 1st overall – I’ll go out on a limb and say Canada should win this whole thing.  Whether or not they will remains to be seen.

RUSSIA

Perhaps the biggest story all summer hasn’t so much been who’s playing for Russia, but who isn’t playing.  Some big names like Khabibulin, Fedorov, Bure, Kovalev, Mogilny, Zhamnov, and Zhitnik, just to name a few, all voiced their disinterest in playing for the team.  The decision seems to be based on what the players felt is a mismanaged team.  The decision not to place recently retired Igor Larionov in a managerial role didn’t go over well, and then there was controversy on who would actually coach the team, legendary Viktor Tikhonov, or Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.  The powers that be finally went with the latter.  Then, the selection committee didn’t even release a primary roster until almost a week after the May deadline, leaving more than a handful of players concerned over whether or not they’d have enough time to obtain a work visa!

However, all is not lost.  If you base your assessment of the Russian team solely on the names who won’t be there, then you’re being very silly.  One look at the roster tells you this will not be your average amateur team.  There is still more than enough talent to go around, and if they get it together at the right time, Russia could end up the biggest surprise of this tournament.

Don’t believe me?  Look at some of the names.

Evgeni Nabokov, he’s not the “Bulin Wall”, but he did take San Jose to six games in the Western Conference final, not to mention his team beat the likes of Colorado and St. Louis.  Unfortunately for Russia, he will only play if absolutely necessary, as he is recovering from a knee injury which he just had surgery on in June.  Anaheim Mighty Ducks prospect Ilya Bryzgalov, who spent last season in Cincinatti, and Alexander Formichev of Sibir Novosibirsk will battle for the starting job.  Bryzgalov is expected to back up Jean-Sebastian Giguere going forward, given the Martin Gerber trade to Carolina, so this will be his chance to show the Ducks as well as the rest of the World what he can do.

On defense, you’ve got Sergei Gonchar, Anton Volchenkov, Darius Kasparaitis, Dmitri Kalinin, and Oleg Tverdovsky.

The Russians will showcase some of the most exciting young forwards playing the game today, names like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov, Oleg Kvasha, and this year’s first round draft pick Alexander Ovechkin.  Surrounding them will be veterans Sergei Samsonov and Alexei Yashin.  I’m really looking forward to watching the kid Ovechkin play, as he’s received more accolades than the likes of Pavel Bure or even the legendary Sergei Makarov.

Can they compete with Canada and the U.S.A.?  For sure, but they will have to bring their A game every night (as will Canada and the U.S.A.!).

Prediction: 3rd in division, a dark horse sleeper pick if ever there was one.

SLOVAKIA

Goaltending is the biggest question mark for the Slovaks.  Who are these guys?  Jan Lasak, product of the Nashville Predators, has literally stood on his head during exhibition action.  He was denied a shutout versus Canada in a 2-2 draw but shut the door in overtime, and the very next night mirrored Ilya Bryzgalov of Russia in a goose egg tie.  There’s no question he’ll be the number one guy.  And it’s a good thing too, because the other two goalies are relatively unknown.  Peter Budaj and Radislav Stana are a year or two away from seeing any real action in Colorado or Washington respectively, but if they get a shot in this tournament could speed up the process just a little bit.

The team seems to be just fine on paper when it comes to defense and forwards.  In fact, we may as well just call this team the Ottawa Senators, as they are the most prominent folks here, led by the “Z” man Zdeno Chara, “#18” Marian Hossa, and Peter Bondra.  Unfortunately Bondra broke his wrist, so he will not play.  No worries, though, as Slovakia has some exciting veteran forwards in Miroslav Satan, Marian Gaborik, Josef Stumpel, Vladimir Orszagh, Pavol Demitra, and Richard Zednik.

If you were to take Chara out of the fold, the Slovak defense would be mediocre at best.  They do have Phoenix’ Radoslav Suchy, Los Angeles’ Lubomir Visnovsky, and Pittsburgh’s Martin Strbak, but experience is lacking outside of these four.  So far it hasn’t been an issue, though, as the goaltending has been there.  Slovakia shouldn’t have any problem scoring, but will need Lasak to continue his heroics between the pipes if they have any hope of advancing past round robin play.  As far as I’m concerned it just isn’t going to happen.

Prediction: 4th in division.

USA

As previously mentioned, the Americans are the defending World Cup champions, and one has to believe they are poised to repeat (or so they think).  Not so fast though.  There are seven other teams who will want a say before all is said and done.

Like Canada, team U.S.A. is made up of NHL All Stars, all of which are prominent household name players.  However, one observation I’ve not only heard but witnessed first hand, is the Americans may have “too many cooks”, meaning too many so called veterans and not enough youth, and the youth they do have are all playing the wrong positions.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s start in goal.  Unfortunately for the U.S.A., 1996 Tournament MVP Mike Richter has retired, as has John Vanbiesbrouck.  Robert Esche, who clearly should be the #1 choice between the pipes, is certainly on a hot streak from this past spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but has won nothing.  Ty Conklin has been to the Calder Cup final but never won.  Where this will lead the U.S.A. is going to depend primarily on what the rest of the team does on the ice, starting on defense.  The strategy for most opponents will be simple, get to the defense and go mano-et-mano with the goalie.  All I know is Conklin will have to react faster than he did against Mario and Lecavalier.  Rick DiPietro is the other goalie for the Americans, and he has played well, posting an exhibition shutout against Russia.  Esche and DiPietro will most likely be the one-two punch for the U.S.A.  Coach Ron Wilson will do everything he can to direct attention away from the Americans’ lack of experience in goal, but let’s be honest, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and every team in the tournament is aware of it.

The focus for Team U.S.A. seems to be on defense and offense.  Where I mentioned the experience in net is lacking, this is not a problem in other positions.  Brian Leetch, Aaron Miller, Chris Chelios, Ken Klee, Brian Rafalski, and Eric Weinrich are the cornerstone of any successful defense, it’s the offense where they seem to have more than enough to go around, maybe too much.  Tony Amonte, Bill Guerin, Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Keith Tkachuk, and Doug Weight all return from past U.S.A. teams.  Missing is Jeremy Roenick, who seems more interested in gambling if you believe all the latest reports on him.  I’m one to give the benefit of the doubt, and believe he decided to get some much needed rest.  New to Team U.S.A. will be Jason Blake and Craig Conroy.  Both will add size and speed.

The U.S. added some youth to the team, but it’s not distributed throughout.  The majority of players are over the age of 30, and as the tournament wears on, you have to think this will work to their opponents’ advantage.  The addition of John-Michael Liles and Paul Martin on defense to replace the injured Hal Gill and Jordan Leopold will help, but these are defensemen, not forwards.  Whether they can sustain speed and keep up with the opposition will remain to be seen.

Another observation I’ve made about this U.S. squad is they need to be much more disciplined than they were during exhibition play.  They played two of their three games against Canada, and will play against them at least once more before all is said and done.  Sure, there is no love lost between these two teams, but the Americans will not survive past round robin play if they can’t keep their sticks on the ice where they belong, mark my words.

Everyone seems to be expecting the U.S.A.-Canada rematch, and all indications are this could end up reality, but this is a tough tournament to win, so don’t print the program just yet.

Prediction: 2nd in division, the road to a second straight World Cup will be rough.

 

European Division

CZECH REPUBLIC

Let’s all take a moment of silence to reflect on the life of Ivan Hlinka, the legendary Czech coach who passed away suddenly on August 16th after crashing his car.  Hlinka has been compared by many to USA’s mastermind Herb Brooks.

Since the tournament must go on, replacing Hlinka behind the bench will be Vladimir Ruzicka, a former NHL player in Edmonton, Boston and Ottawa.  He was captain of the 1998 Gold Medal winning team at the Nagano Olympics, and retired as a player shortly thereafter.

One major difference this time around is the Czechs won’t have Dominik Hasek in net, as he is gearing up for the NHL season (provided there is one), and now they won’t even have his new Ottawa team mate Martin Prusek either, as he nurses a hip injury.  Tomas Vokoun of the Nashville Predators seems the logical choice to start the tournament, but Roman Cechmanek is no slouch either.  The only problem is, neither one of them have experience at this level of competition.  Vokoun showed some promise in round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, while Cechmanek has never been past the second round.  Replacing Prusek’s roster spot will be Petr Briza of the Czech Elite league.

The Czech Republic have as good a defense as any team in the tournament, with many of the NHL’s everyday players represented.  Names like Roman Hamrlik, Martin Skoula, Jiri Slegr, Jaroslav Spacek, Jiri Fischer, Tomas Kaberle and Marek Malik.

Up front, the skill level is impeccable, with Martin Havlat, Milan Hejduk, Jaromir Jagr, Vaclav Prospal, Patrik Elias, and Radek Dvorak, to name a few.  These players can make the nightly highlight reels all by themselves, now they’ll be playing together.  Fans in Los Angeles might remember forward Tomas Vlasak, a former fifth round draft pick in 1993.  He only played in 10 NHL games during the 2000-01 season, but has been a star in the Czech, Finnish and Russian elite leagues.

Goaltender Vokoun was appalled by what happened in Prague this past spring during the World Championships, and is determined to do all he can to help his team redeem itself.  You may recall the Czech team finished first overall in round robin play, a perfect 5-0, only to lose in a shootout to the Americans in the quarterfinals.  When asked about his team’s chances, he had this to say: “Hockey is No. 1 sport in our country. It's like Canada. We've had some big successes (winning the 1998 Olympic gold, for example) and we have over 60 players in the NHL and we are only a country of 10 million people. That's a big achievement.”

Prediction: 2nd in division

FINLAND

If Calgary Flames’ goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff picks up where he left off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then everybody is in big trouble.  You can make a safe bet that winning his recent arbitration case against Calgary to the tune of $2.95 million will have him pumped up more than any goaltender in the tournament.  Then again, this tournament is not about the money, it’s about national pride.  He made most Canadian Hockey fans proud this past spring, and will be looking to give fans at home in Finland something to cheer about.

Should “Kipper” not be able to get it done, his backups are equally as capable.  Kari Lehtonen is the future of goaltending in Atlanta, and Vesa Toskala of San Jose was the main reason the Sharks were able to part with Kiprusoff in the first place.  The Finns have arguably the second strongest goaltending tandem in the tournament (behind Canada), and if either one of them gets on a roll, look out.  Coach Raimo Summanen clearly knows this, stating “We have great goaltending and they will carry us.  We will rely heavily on them.”

This isn’t to say they can win this tournament with their eyes closed.  They will need their capable defense and offense to carry the load.  There is no shortage of talent on this team, as the likes of  Teemu Selanne, Olli Jokinen, Saku Koivu along with brother Mikko Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, and Teppo Numminen will all be counted on to hold the fort.  Tuomo Ruutu, the big story in Chicago last season, will have a chance to strut his stuff on the international stage.

Sami Salo of the Vancouver Canucks, Ossi Vaananen of the Colorado Avalanche, and Kimmo Timonen of the Nashville Predators will be expected to guard the blue line with Numminen.  They’ll have a lot of help with Calgary’s Toni Lydman, Islanders’ Janne Niinimaa, Philadelphia’s Joni Pitkanen, and Toronto’s Aki-Petteri Berg.

Finland has often been touted as the European equivalent to Canada or the U.S.A.  They certainly have enough depth to get it done, maybe not as much as Sweden or the Czechs, but they will be tough.

Prediction: 3rd in division

GERMANY

Germany has always iced a competitive team, and it’s only a matter of time before they pull off the ultimate upset.  Just don’t look for it to happen during the World Cup.  Coach Franz Reindl knows it too, but says don’t expect his team to roll over and play dead.

We just squeeze out the very best from us in every game and we’ll see how it ends.”

If the players know they’ve been labeled underdogs of this tournament, they sure have a weird way of showing it.  They gave the Russian team all they could handle in a 3-3 tie, were routed 7-4 by the Czechs (in what I understand was a very entertaining game), and lost late to Finland 4-2.  Every team should be able to look back to the World Cup of 1996, not to mention the Olympics in 2002 and be wary of what this team of virtual nobodies can do.

Don’t look for too many NHL stars on this team.  The bulk of talent will come from Germany’s national leagues.  In goal, look for a battle between Washington Capitals’ Olaf Kolzig and veteran Robert Muller, a fixture on the team long before Kolzig came along.  You’ll recognize forwards Marco Sturm and Marcel Goc of the San Jose Sharks, not to mention defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, and Ottawa Senators prospect Christoph Schubert.  Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers/Phantoms will recognize defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, and Buffalo Sabres fans will know Jochen Hecht.  Of interest to Czech Republic fans will be the presence of Martin Reichel, brother of Toronto’s Robert Reichel, who will play against each other for the first time since the Olympics.

The Germans gave it all they had in Salt Lake City, but let’s be honest, they haven’t got a hope in hell of advancing past the quarterfinals, unless of course Olie the Goalie stands on his head and Marco Sturm gets his scoring touch back.  But will it be enough?  I’m predicting a basement finish, but it won’t be from a lack of trying, there’s just way too much talent on the other teams.  One thing’s for sure, if Germany makes some noise in this tournament you’ll be certain to see a few more of these players in the big league before long.

Prediction: 4th in European division, last place overall

SWEDEN

Last, but certainly not least, is the Swedish Elite team of All-Stars, or so it would seem.  This squad of NHL regulars proves to be the biggest threat to Canada and the U.S.A.’s chances.  And lucky for Team Sweden and goaltender Tommy Salo, Belarus will not ice a team in this tournament.

If you consider the last two World Championships, however, Belarus is the least of Sweden’s worries.  They have a chance to prove to the entire world they are indeed capable of winning the big game.  History over the past few years would prove otherwise.  Of course there was the big quarterfinal loss to Belarus in Salt Lake City, then a loss of the lead versus Canada not once, but two years in a row.  If you think the U.S.A.-Canada rivalry is heated?  Just wait and see what happens if we end up with a Sweden-Canada final.  Who will they cheer for at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto then?  Canada or Mats Sundin?

Salo has a lot to prove, and I know I keep mentioning this, but it’s true.  He just hasn’t been the same goalie since the Olympics, period.  Now he has a chance to put it all behind him and be a better everyday goalie in the NHL, or not.  If he can’t get it done, the Swedes will have to rely on Toronto Maple Leafs’ backup Mikael Tellqvist or Henrik Lundqvist of the Swedish Elite League.

Team Sweden certainly has more than enough firepower to get the job done, as they’ll have the aforementioned Sundin, Peter Forsberg, the Sedin twins, Markus Naslund, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Holmstrom, Nils Ekman, and P.J. Axelsson.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Mattias Ohlund will anchor the defense, along with Marcus Ragnarsson, Dick Tarnstrom, Mattias Norstrom, Christian Backman, and Kim Johnsson.

The key for Sweden is simple, score, and keep the other team from scoring.  Easier said than done you say?  We’ll find out.

Prediction: 1st in division, could go all the way if Canada and the U.S.A. bow out.

The tournament officially gets underway this week, so sit back, enjoy, and cross your fingers a deal between the NHL and NHLPA can be worked out in time to save the season.

The word on the street has been pretty grim the past few days.  Players’ have been told to expect to lose an entire season or more, and let’s hope for everybody’s sake this doesn’t happen.

Then again, if the NHL doesn’t play, it will give me an opportunity to concentrate on some of the excitement from the minor leagues, so don’t abandon Puckin’ Around because I sure won’t stop living and breathing hockey.  Enjoy the tournament everybody!

 

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