NHL lockout benefits all, but Canada favored
INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Mario Lemieux, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin aren't playing in the world hockey championship, but the tournament still is loaded with stars thanks to the NHL lockout.
Most teams at the worlds usually rely on players whose NHL teams miss the playoffs or are eliminated early. Not this time.
The lockout that shut down the NHL this season has left most of the best players free to compete in the two-week, 16-team event that starts Saturday and ends May 15 in Vienna. The rosters are impressive, though not as strong as the ones from last year's World Cup and the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Canada won the last two world titles and is favored to complete the hat trick. Russia, which beat 2003 and 2004 worlds runner-up Sweden in two games in last week's European Hockey Tour final, appears a strong challenger.
The United States has a younger and stronger team than the one that captured the bronze medal last year in the Czech Republic.
"This tournament is going to get a lot more attention this year than in the past, and there's going to be a lot of young guys who have a chance to step up,'' said Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern, one of eight players returning from last year's squad.
The U.S. has two stars who didn't play last year: Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars, the captain, and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues. Modano has been one of the NHL's top scorers for nearly two decades, and Weight is one of the best playmakers.
The U.S., coached by Peter Laviolette of the Carolina Hurricanes, opens against Slovenia on Sunday. Canada plays Latvia on Saturday.
"I'd expect that with the European teams, 95 percent of their players will have played the entire season,'' Canada general manager Steve Tambellini said. "The hardest-hit teams will probably be Canada and the United States as far as getting up to speed.''
Many on Canada's team played in Europe this winter. Some, including star goalie Martin Brodeur, will be going in cold except for some exhibitions. Lemieux, Sakic, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer passed up the worlds. Goaltender Jose Theodore played briefly in Sweden but is absent. So are Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier.
"On paper it's probably one of the best teams we've ever had,'' said Brenden Morrow, who helped Canada win the gold last year in Prague. "The European teams are pretty stacked up, too, and they've played hockey all year.''
Sweden coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was impressed by the young Russians after they swept the Swedes in the European Hockey Tour final series.
"It was like the old Soviet era,'' Gustafsson said. "Suddenly Russia plays like a team.''
Russia features Alexander Ovechkin, 19, and Evgeni Malkin, 18, last year's top NHL draft picks. There's also Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Yashin and Viktor Kozlov, all established NHL stars.
Sweden will be missing Forsberg, a former NHL MVP who broke his wrist and sustained a concussion in the Swedish League. Markus Naslund, the NHL's leading goal scorer the past three seasons with Vancouver, declined an invitation after a disappointing playoffs in Sweden.
Sundin, the Toronto captain, and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom didn't play this season and skipped the worlds. Sweden, however, still has talent. Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg is coming off an all-star season in Sweden, but missed the Euro Hockey Tour final because of the flu. There's also twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin of Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist, one of Europe's best goalies.
Slovakia, which won its only world title in Sweden in 2002, has Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara of Ottawa, Zigmund Palffy and Jozef Stumpel of Los Angeles, Marian Gaborik of Minnesota, Ladislav Nagy of Phoenix and Pavol Demitra of St. Louis.
Finland, a World Cup of Hockey finalist last year, may be the hardest hit by no-shows. The missing include Sami Salo of Vancouver, Saku Koivu of Montreal, Miikka Kiprusoff and Toni Lydman of Calgary, Aki Berg of Toronto, Tuomo Ruutu of Chicago and Jere Lehtinen of Dallas.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press