HALIFAX, Canada (AFP) — Russia and the Czech Republic will aim to topple defending champion Canada at the World Hockey Championships, but establishing Olympic credibility is also high on everyone's wish list.
Many of the teams competing at the Halifax Worlds, which gets underway Friday, will also use this as a testing ground for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
And since this is the first time since 1962 the Worlds have been held in North America, that means some adjustments for the European teams.
They not only is there added travel, but they must also get used to the different size ice surface in North America. Both the Worlds and the Vancouver Olympics will be played on the smaller North American rinks.
"It is a big difference," said Finnish forward Teemu Selanne on Wednesday. "When you go to the big ice surface the European teams have the advantage."
The 16 teams are divided into four groups with eight teams playing their games out of the Metro Centre in Halifax and the other eight playing at the Colisee in Quebec City.
Canada is seeking to become the first team to win gold on home soil since 1986, when the former Soviet Union defeated Sweden in the final in Moscow.
"Canada will do everything to break the 22-year long home-ice curse as they will go for World title 25," said Rene Fasel, chairman of the International Ice Hockey Federation. "I also have a feeling that Russia will have a good championship."
Canada coach Ken Hitchcock will rely heavily on his top two lines for scoring. That shouldn't be a problem for Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley and Rick Nash, who make up the top trio, but then star-studded teams don't have a stellar track record at the Worlds.
"Every year it is the same cast of characters, the Czechs, Russians, Finns and Swedes," Hitchcock said.
"But it depends on the big-time players and if the big-time players are engaged then that is the country that wins."
Canada highlights group B along with the United States. Joining those two will be Latvia and Slovenia.
Canada should easily beat both Latvia and Slovenia but they will have their hands full with the United States. All but one of the Americans named to the team are playing in the NHL.
The US got a boost when a couple of key players had their NHL seasons cut short in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. They got Tim Thomas and Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins and Zach Parise from the New Jersey Devils.
The American team was already young and skilled before those additions as Chicago's Patrick Kane, Phoenix's Peter Mueller and Los Angeles' Patrick O'Sullivan became available when their clubs failed to make the post-season.
Slovenia and Latvia have just one NHL player between them, Slovenia's Slovenia's Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.
The other group playing out of Halifax is group C which comprises reigning silver medallist Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Norway.
The Finns roster got a boost Wednesday with the addition of World Championship and Olympic Games veteran Selanne.
Finland could also pick up Saku Koivu if the Montreal Canadiens get knocked out of the playoffs in the quarter-finals by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Finland has always been known for strong goaltending and this year is no exception as they have Niklar Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild and Karri Ramo of the Tampa Bay Lightning between the pipes. Backstrom and Ramo are two of 10 players on the Finnish roster who play in the NHL.
Germany has dotted its roster with Los Angeles Kings castoffs. Defencemen Jason Holland, Chris Schmidt and forward John Tripp have plenty of NHL experience and were all part of the Kings organization before heading overseas during the NHL lockout.
Underdog Germany is looking to finish ahead of Latvia and Belarus in the overall standings and maybe surprise one or two of the powerhouses. Last year they gave Canada a scare, losing 3-2 in the early rounds.
Russia and the Czech Republic will highlight group D in Quebec City. Joining them will be Denmark and Italy.
The reigning bronze medallist Russia has the most star-studded roster next to Canada. Maxim Afinogenov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov will anchor an explosive Russian attack.
The Czechs will be strong on the backline as six of their eight defencemen are NHLers.
Olympic gold medallist Sweden is hurting after NHL stars like the Sedin twins, Mats Sundin and Markus Naslund decided to skip the event.
That leaves group A open for the taking as Switzerland will challenge the Swedes for first, leaving Belarus and France to play the role of spoilers.
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