STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Hockey fever hasn't descended on this city just yet, but it is approaching quickly.
Looking around, it's hard to tell it is about to turn into one of the most important places in the hockey world. That begins Friday when Stockholm begins its tenure as host to almost half of the 2012 IIHF World Championship games. The other group -- and medal-round games -- will be played in Helsinki, Finland.
Stockholm's Ericsson Globe Arena, which holds 13,850 spectators, has already hosted the 1989 and 1995 IIHF World Championship, so the venue is ready.
It should be a long hockey party for the fans, as each team will play seven games in their group, with the top four teams advancing to the two quarterfinal matchups.
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Among the hottest topics in Stockholm, however, is how Team Sweden will fare this year. Despite fielding a very strong squad, Sweden will have to face not only its opponents, but "home-team disadvantages" as well.
Representing their country in front of their home fans is an attractive proposition for any hockey player. Last year, it was the host Slovakians and their "neighboring team," the Czech Republic, who attracted many of their biggest stars to the tournament. This year, Sweden will enjoy the same advantage.
This year's Team Sweden roster is loaded with big names, including many NHL stars. There is Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, not to mention the Detroit Red Wings quartet of Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, and Jonathan Ericsson. In all, 14 NHL players will wear Sweden's yellow and blue at the tournament, including Calder Trophy candidate Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche.
The Tre Kronor (Three Crowns) lost six games in a row during the previous week's camp and Czech Hockey Games tournament in Brno. Those losses were against Switzerland (twice), the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland, and the U.S.A., but came with most of their stars missing from the lineup.
Despite these results, Sweden still remains the strongest team in the Stockholm group. But that does not necessarily mean it also has the best chance to pass through the quarterfinals, which has been a difficult hurdle for host teams in the past. Between the expectations of fans and the media and the hosting of friends and families, there are many potential distractions for Sweden's players.
Due to travelling restrictions, the quarterfinals will be played as intra-group matchups, as they were four years ago when the IIHF World Championship was held in Quebec City and Halifax. That means Sweden could face Stockholm-Group opponents Russia or the Czech Republic in the battle for tickets to Helsinki.
Russia's team is built mostly from Kontinental Hockey League players, who have competed together in most tournaments throughout the year. The few NHLers on the roster may have arrived from their NHL clubs only a couple of days ago, but Russia's superstar players should be a force in the tournament. Art Ross Trophy winner, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins should be the biggest star of the entire tournament. And with Pavel Datsyuk's previous exploits on the international scene, Russia's offense will be fun to watch and very tough to stop.
The Czechs used to rely on top goaltending, but that advantage turned to dust this year with Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec not available and with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth remaining with the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Defense may also be an issue with no NHLers on the blueline, unless forward Milan Michalek persuades his brother, Zbynek, whose wife gave birth to a daughter Monday, to join the team. The Czech offense, however, is strong, with established NHL stars Ales Hemsky, David Krejci, and Tomas Plekanec.
Anything can happen, but nobody doubts that these three hockey powers should make it to the Stockholm quarterfinals. That leaves one quarterfinal spot, but underdog Italy is not likely to get it.
Followed by hundreds of their fans, Denmark (with NHLers Frans Nielsen, Lars Eller, Jannik Hansen, and Philip Larsen) or Germany (Marcel Goc) are the strongest candidates for the last quarterfinal spot. Latvia (Kaspars Daugavins) and Norway (no NHL players) are teams that may also have a chance.
Whichever two of the eight teams advance to Helsinki from here, two weeks of intense competition should give them both a great chance to come home with shining medals around their necks.