World Stars Tour will see 7 countries in 14 days
STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Canada's game is Europe's gain these days.
European hockey fans, already reaping the benefits of the NHL lockout, will be treated yet again when a group of NHL stars goes on a barnstorming charity tour through the continent in the next two weeks.
The World Stars Tour, which features top players like Martin Brodeur, Mats Sundin, Sergei Fedorov and Rob Blake, starts Thursday in Riga, Latvia, with the team set to play 10 games in seven countries over 14 days.
"We want to be on the ice playing hockey, and we're hoping the tour puts some emphasis back on the game itself," Brodeur said.
For fans in Europe, the tour brings an opportunity to see their favorite teams up against players they normally only see on TV.
The team will play some of the top clubs in Latvia, Switzerland and Sweden, as well as all-star teams in Russia, Poland, Slovakia and Norway. The Russian league canceled its annual All-Star Game so its best could face the World Stars instead.
"In Russia, the excitement is very, very high," said Brad Robins, a spokesman for the player agency IMG, which is the main organizer of the tour. "And countries like Norway and Poland would never get this opportunity."
On Monday in Latvia, fans were scrambling to buy tickets for Thursday's opening game between the NHL players and Latvian league champions Riga 2000, led by the Colorado Avalanche's Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins.
The NHL players will begin practicing in Toronto on Tuesday and fly to Riga on Wednesday, Riga 2000 team president Viesturs Koziols said.
While in Riga, the NHLers will practice with a youth team, sign autographs and lay flowers at the grave of Sergei Zholtok, a Latvian forward who played for a decade in the NHL and died last month because of heart failure during a Riga 2000 game in Belarus.
Proceeds from the tour will be donated to two NHL charities, the Goals and Dreams Foundation and the Garth Brooks Foundation.
NHL players are no strangers to Europe these days. More than 240 NHLers are playing for European clubs during the lockout, most of them in Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
"This season has been so different and unique for our part," said Johan Hemlin, sports director for Swedish club Linkoping, one of three Swedish teams that will face the World Stars.
"Still, it's extra nice to be able to treat the people of Linkoping to this kind of game. It's going to be an early Christmas present for a lot of hockey fans," he said.
Those fans hoping to see the fierce hits and frequent fights often associated with North American hockey might be disappointed, though.
"You would hope in some ways that it would be more of an entertainment spectacle, in terms of skill," Robins said. But, he added, teams like the Russian all-stars "will be quite a challenge."
And don't expect the other European teams to be in too much awe of their opponents either.
"They'll do everything in their power to win the games," said Claes Elefalk, head of IMG Sweden. "There will be a lot of prestige involved."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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