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World Cup storylines

8/25/2004

On the ice, the World Cup of Hockey has a decidedly slow-burning fuse.

There are the exhibition games and then three essentially meaningless pool games (especially in the North American pool where all four teams can make cases that they're championship material) before gears shift dramatically to three straight elimination games to take ownership of the title as the world's finest hockey team.

But if the on-ice drama will be slow to percolate, it will be more than made up for with the off-ice drama that each team brings to the tournament.

Canada Yes, there's the comforting presence of that Salt Lake City gold medal, the first in 50 years for the country that claims the game as its own. And twin World Championship gold medals. And solid performances from its national junior team in recent years.

But national angst sleeps lightly when it comes to hockey in Canada. From the moment training camps open, the Canadians will be reminded that this is not their tournament, that they were exposed in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey final by a grittier American team.

If national motivation counts for anything, and it says here it is a double-edged blade, no team has it like the Canadians have it.

In net, the Canadians boast the best depth of any team with Martin Brodeur locked into the No. 1 spot. But Roberto Luongo was the man at the previous two World Championships and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last year.

Brodeur has won two Vezinas in a row but looked sadly mortal in New Jersey's five-game loss to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.

Canada head coach Pat Quinn yanked Curtis Joseph, then his starting goaltender in Toronto, after a weak effort in the Olympic tournament's opening game against Sweden. What kind of leash will Quinn give Brodeur with Luongo waiting in the wings?

And of course, there is Mario Lemieux, the last great link to hockey's glory days when scoring was plentiful and the game dared to consider itself in the same breath as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

He returns to the tournament where he had his greatest moment in 1987. His partner in crime from that tournament, Wayne Gretzky, now watches from the press box as the author of this current Canadian Dream Team and one has to wonder if this will be Lemieux's chance to put an exclamation point on a career that has already seen him hurried into the Hall of Fame.

Czech Republic For a hockey nation already struggling to regain its place among world leaders, the shocking death of much-loved head coach Ivan Hlinka will cast a pall over the entire tournament but especially a Czech team with high expectations.

Remember the stirring sight of more than a million delirious Czechs crowded into downtown Prague to welcome home their heroes after they'd ascended to the summit of the hockey world with their victory in Nagano in 1998?

If those images have faded for North American fans they remain a stinging reminder for the Czechs of their inability to capitalize on that glorious moment.

Instead of dominating the hockey world the Czechs have regressed.

They finished out of the medals with a disappointing turn at the Salt Lake City Olympics and were embarrassed as hosts of last spring's World Championships when an unheralded (not to mention undermanned) American squad upset a star-studded Czech squad that included Jaromir Jagr, in a shootout.

Jagr returns, his reputation as the game's best player also a distant memory.

A return to the form that saw him win five NHL scoring titles would go a long way to restoring that reputation.

Tomas Vokoun has the unenviable task of making Czech fans forget about Dominik Hasek but if you're looking for a story of redemption, if Vokoun falters, look for Roman Cechmanek to take over.

Cechmanek was run out of Philadelphia two years ago after being a runner-up for the Vezina Trophy in 2001 but has the skills to put on a two or three-game clinic.

Of course, he also has the potential to resemble a human sieve. Stay tuned.

Finland The Finns have been living off their dark horse reputation in international competition for years having been surprise bronze medalists at the 1994 and 1998 Olympics but they have never appeared in a World Cup/Canada Cup final and have never found the right recipe to overcome the Russians, Canadians or Americans on this kind of stage.

This year the story will begin and end in goal for the Finns where they boast a unique pair of netminders, both capable of giving the Finns their first championship.

Miikka Kiprusoff returns from his virtuoso performance last season where he established a modern record for goals against (1.69, although he played in only 38 regular season games) and led Calgary to a surprise berth in the Stanley Cup final.

If Kiprusoff can't reproduce the magic, watch for the Finns to turn to Atlanta Thrashers prospect Kari Lehtonen who was equally sensational for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League and was named by The Hockey News as the game's top prospect two years in a row.

Head coach Raimo Summanen, who took over shortly after an embarrassing collapse against Sweden at the 2003 World Championships, is charged with making sure the infighting and politicking that may have hurt Finnish hockey development, are non-factors in this tournament.

The former Edmonton Oiler and Vancouver Canuck known for his meek attitude, has built a reputation as a fiery coach. The longtime national team player knows a little of the Canada Cup and its performers having played in the '87 tournament and again in 1991. At one point, Summanen, who played internationally until the mid-1990s, played on a line with Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen. Among those on Summanen's staff is Hall of Famer and Oiler great Jari Kurri.

Germany The Germans, who have slowly made their way onto the international hockey stage, moving from 20th overall to eighth in recent years, will have a new man at the helm as they try to recreate the spoiler role they enjoyed in Salt Lake City.

Franz Reindl was the youngest member of a German team that won a surprise bronze medal in 1976 and was also a member of the national team at the 1984 Canada Cup. Reindl is the former director of sport for the German Ice Hockey Federation and takes over for Hans Zach who quit abruptly earlier this year.

The Germans have assembled a quietly talented team for the World Cup and Reindl has promised to let them play a more wide-open style.

It is possible, indeed even likely, that the Germans will not win a game against the rest of the European pool that includes Sweden, the Czech Republic and Finland.
But they also have the defensive wherewithal and patience to upend any of those teams that don't give the Germans their due in the elimination round.

Watch for the Reichel brothers, Martin of Germany and Robert of the Czech Republic, to square off at least once during the tournament.

Russia Where to start with the Russians?

Well, how about the fact you could ice a team of disgruntled and/or ailing Russians who have turned their back on the national team and it would likely fare as well as the one that will take the ice in September.

Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Zubov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Alexei Zhamnov, Danny Markov, Alexei Zhitnik, Valeri Bure, Evgeni Nabokov, and most recently Sergei Fedorov, have said "nyet" to the World Cup for various reasons.

What's left isn't chopped borscht.

But for the Russians, it's never been about the talent. It's always been there and it will be so again with Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Yashin and Pavel Datsyuk. Instead, it's all about the chemistry, the will to win in a tournament that requires as much heart and single-mindedness as raw skill.

Where is the leadership, then? Does it come in the form of the enigmatic Kovalev who turned in a terrific playoff run for Montreal? Or is this Kovalchuk's opportunity to shoulder a significant dressing room load as he did a year ago in Atlanta when close friend (and Canadian team member) Dany Heatley was injured? Perhaps the fact talented teammates have turned their back on the tournament will act as a galvanizing force in the dressing room.

And then there's the goaltending.

With Khabibulin announcing early on he wouldn't play, citing the dysfunctional management group in charge of the team, and Nabokov's slow recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery, the goaltending chores appear to fall, by default, to highly regarded Mighty Ducks prospect Ilya Bryzgalov who was the backup to Khabibulin in Salt Lake City. A classic butterfly style netminder, the 6-foot-3 Bryzgalov told ESPN.com he's ready for the challenge.

This is a team that could emerge from the tournament without a win (one might recall they finished 11th at the 2000 World Championships in St. Petersburg). The Russians could just as easily be the last team standing, winners of their first Canada Cup/World Cup of Hockey championship since 1981.

Slovakia Team general manager Peter Stastny is now a member of the European parliament but his political ambitions pale beside his hockey ambitions, his desire to see his beloved Slovaks recognized as a true hockey power.

Stastny worked like a demon to have players freed up by NHL teams to play in the Salt Lake City qualifying tournament only to see his half-formed squad embarrassed by Germany and eliminated before the main tournament began.

It was an embarrassing moment for the NHL and international hockey.

In the interim, the Slovaks have continued to evolve, winning the 2002 World Championships.

Now the World Cup of Hockey will provide the ultimate proving ground for Stastny and a talented roster.

The Slovaks have a well-rounded lineup with size in the form of Norris Trophy runner-up Zdeno Chara, Ivan Majesky, Michal Handzus and skill with the likes of the two Marians, Hossa and Gaborik, Ladislav Nagy, Ziggy Palffy and Miroslav Satan.

They can also grind it out with role players like Richard Zednik, Branko Radivojevic.

Looking for redemption story lines?

How about unrestricted free agent Pavol Demitra, cut loose by the St. Louis Blues after a disappointing seasons or classy veteran Peter Bondra likewise cut loose by Ottawa.

But the real story for the Slovaks will be the play of unheralded netminder Jan Lasak.

Most critics point to Lasak and the other Slovak netminders Peter Budaj, the first pick of the Colorado Avalanche, 63rd overall in the 2001 draft and Washington Capitals' prospect Rastislav Stana, as the team's Achilles' heel.

Yet Lasak, a former Nashville draft pick now a free agent has already won a gold medal at the 2002 World Championships and is no stranger to pressure.
If it's so, the Slovaks could be the true dark horse of the tournament.

Sweden The Swedish press is calling this version of the Tre Kronor (The Three Crowns, the national emblem that appears on the team's jerseys), the best national team ever.

But the Swedes are used to entering top-level international play with such lofty expectations and are just as familiar with the sting of underachievement.

But this is not just a collection of the country's brightest NHL stars.

Michael Nylander, recently signed with the New York Rangers, and Kristian Huselius, were left off the roster in favor of more workmanlike players Tomas Holmstrom, Marcus Nilson and the Sedin brothers Henrik and Daniel.

Still, the spotlight will shine brightest on some of the brightest stars in the game starting with Peter Forsberg who seems to be contemplating retirement from the NHL at every turn.

With a lockout looming, there are those who think this may be the last chance to see Forsberg on an NHL rink.

Then there's Tommy Salo, the man who has been fitted with permanent goat horns by the Swedish media and hockey community since allowing that fateful 70-footer in the quarterfinal match against Belarus in 2002.

A win for Salo at the World Cup of Hockey might see those horns removed if not partially shorn.

Chances are Salo will not be in the mix, though, as Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Mikael Tellqvist looks to build on a solid international reputation by taking over the starting job for the tournament.

United States Look up and down this U.S.A. lineup and there is more than a little deja vu all over again.

Returning from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey victory are blue liners Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher. Up front, it's the same old gang led by Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, Brian Rolston, Brett Hull and Mike Modano.

Although the team returns 12 players from the 1996 squad the absences are notable as John LeClair didn't make the cut, Jeremy Roenick wasn't healthy enough and Mathieu Schneider didn't have a contract so bowed out late.

Deja vu is one thing, but eight years is a long time between magic moments and the question that permeates this team will be the Americans' ability to recreate the chemistry and single-mindedness that helped them prevail in 1996.

In between there have been disappointments in Nagano in 1998 and a loss to Canada in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City.

Hatcher must rebound to the form that made him one of the most sought-after free agents a year ago before a knee injury scuttled his season.

Up front, the Americans will have to find someone to replace the emotional leadership of Roenick.

The man charged with controlling a dressing room with more than a few sizable egos will once again be Ron Wilson.

The emotional, often cutting Wilson has known the highs (the 1996 World Cup win) and the lows (the embarrassment of Nagano culminating with the trashing of dorm rooms by U.S. players in the athletes' village).

His mannerisms (he says he's mellowed), will go a long way to defining the team's identity and in turn their success.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.