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Added importance to 2009 Karjala Cup

by Bill Meltzer /
Played every November in Finland, the Karjala Cup is the second leg of the annual Euro Hockey Tour -- a four-tournament competition involving the national teams of the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and Finland.

The other tournaments are the Czech Hockey Games in the Czech Republic, the Channel One Cup and the LG Swedish Hockey Games. After the tournaments have finished, the teams are seeded according to the combined point total from all four tournaments and play in the European Hockey Tour finals, with the winning national team receiving about $100,000 in prize money. The winner also obtains the Challenge Cup, which was made in Sweden in 1996. Russia is the defending champion.

More importantly, the tournaments give the coaches of the respective national teams a chance to evaluate candidates for the IIHF World Championship rosters. The tournament takes on added importance this year with the Olympics coming in February. The presence of Peter Forsberg on Team Sweden further adds to the intrigue. There will be European-based scouts from most NHL teams in attendance.

The Euro Hockey Tour was created one season prior to the inclusion of the Czech Hockey Games. During the 1996 Izvestiya tournament, representatives of the Russian, Swedish, Finnish and Czech hockey federations agreed to create the competition, with each country contributing one-quarter of the prize money. Another part of the agreement is an obligation to produce television coverage for the events and sell commercial time during the live broadcasts.

Sponsored by a prominent Finnish beer company, the first Karjala Cup tournament was played in 1996. Over its 13-year existence, the host Finns have won the tourney nine times, but Russia has won the last three. Sweden took first place in 1997, while the Czech Republic has had to settle for five runner-up finishes (including last year).

This year's tournament will see one game (Sweden vs. Czech Republic) played at Kinnarps Arena in Jonkoping, Sweden, which is the home arena of HV 71 of Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League). All other games will take place at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, the home of SM-Liiga club Jokerit and a host site for the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Premiere series last month.

Two years ago, the tournament drew rare attention from North America because of the scheduled presence of Forsberg, who was attempting to return to the NHL from chronic foot and ankle problems. Forsberg, however, reinjured himself in practice before the tournament and had to withdraw.

This time around, he's in the same boat in terms of attempting a comeback, but he's reportedly in better shape and feeling healthier. Forsberg started the 2009-10 season with Modo Hockey of Elitserien, but was limited to three games because of an allegedly unrelated stress fracture in his foot. He's unlikely to return to Modo this season because it would render him ineligible to play in the NHL, even in the absence of a formal international player transfer agreement.

Forsberg clearly will be the most focused-upon player participating in this year's Karjala Cup. Nevertheless, there are some familiar names on all of the rosters.

For the defending champion Russians, the entire roster features KHL players. Longtime star NHL defenseman Sergei Zubov (now with SKA St. Petersburg) will anchor the blue line, along with Oleg Tverdovsky (HC Salavat Yulaev), Vitali Vishnevsky (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) and Ilya Nikulin (Ak Bars Kazan). Up front, the Russians boast the likes of Salavat Yulaev teammates Alexander Radulov and Viktor Kozlov, while Salavat Yulaev goaltender Alexander Eremenko is likely to man the nets.

The Finnish blue line will be led by former NHL players Lasse Kukkonen (Avangard Omsk, KHL) and Ossi Vaananen (Dynamo Minsk, KHL), along with Janne Niskala (Frolunda HC Indians Gothenburg, Elitserien). Up front, Ville Peltonen (Dynamo Minsk) will provide leadership, while Janne Pesonen (Ak Bars Kazan) will be relied on heavily for scoring punch.

Former Detroit Red Wings standout Jiri Hudler (Dynamo Moscow, KHL) is by far the most prominent player on Team Czech Republic. The lineup up front also features former NHL players Pavel Brendl (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, KHL), Jiri Novotny (Atlant Mytishi, KHL), Jaroslav Bednar (HC Slavia Prague, Czech Extraliga), Jan Hlavac (Linkopings HC, Elitserien), Jan Bulis (Atlant Mytishi), Jakub Klepis (Avangard Omsk) and Petr Hubacek (HC Vitkovice, Czech Extraliga). The defense will be led by Filip Novak (Dynamo Riga, KHL) and Josef Melichar (HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice, Czech Extraliga).

On Team Sweden, Forsberg will be joined by P.J. Axelsson, who spent 11 seasons with the Boston Bruins prior to signing with Frolunda (his original team). Other notable veterans with NHL or North American minor-league experience include goaltenders Mikael Tellqvist and Stefan Liv, defensemen Marcus Ragnarsson (Djurgardens IF, Elitserien), Dick Tarnstrom (AIK Stockholm of minor league Allsvenskan), Christian Backman (Frolunda) and Daniel Tjarnqvist (Lokotomiv Yaroslavl), as well as forwards Mattias Weinhandl (Dynamo Moscow) and Marcus Nilson (Djurgarden).

More intriguing is the inclusion of some of Sweden's top young players, including Edmonton Oilers prospect Linus Omark (Dynamo Moscow), Tampa Bay Lightning hopeful Johan Harju (Dynamo Moscow) and San Jose Sharks draftee Patrik Zackrisson (Linkopings HC, Elitserien).

The tournament commences Thursday with the Sweden-Czech Republic game in Jonkoping and the Finland-Russia game in Helsinki. On Saturday, the Finns take on the Czechs while the Swedes play the Russians. The tourney concludes Sunday with archrivals Finland and Sweden renewing hockey hostilities, along with Russia and the Czech Republic opposing one another.

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