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World Championship Starts In Stanley Cup's Shadow

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
BERN, Switzerland (AP) —  With the Stanley Cup playoffs in full swing, the world ice hockey championships opened Friday in two Swiss cities hoping to attract both players and fans.

Defending champion Russia leads the way at the 16-nation event, which packs 56 games into 17 days split between Bern and Zurich. But even the coaches at the worlds are keeping an eye on the NHL playoffs, hoping to pick up more players as teams get eliminated.

"We're a little undermanned right now," United States coach Ron Wilson said after arriving with a hastily assembled squad this week. "We don't know what our final product will look like because we don't know who will be eliminated from the playoffs."

If the Washington Capitals are knocked out by the New York Rangers, who lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 scheduled for Friday night, superstar forward Alex Ovechkin and teammates Alex Semin and Sergei Fedorov could join the Russian team.

Russia coach Slava Bykov is leaving his options open before opening the tournament against Germany on Friday in Bern.

"It may happen that three Washington forwards - Semin, Fedorov and Ovechkin - will be available for us and we will extend our roster," said Bykov, who already has six NHL players on his roster, including Atlanta Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk.

Tournament rules allow teams to begin with 20 skaters and three goalies, then carry a 25-man roster after the three-game qualifying group stage. Only the last-place nation in each of four groups is eliminated, with the top three taking forward their results gained against each other into a second group phase.

"We can certainly survive through the first round and get stronger as the tournament goes on," said Wilson, whose team opens Saturday against Latvia in Bern.

Group C also includes Olympic champion Sweden and Austria.

The Americans, have won the world title only twice, the last time in 1960 on home ice at the Squaw Valley Olympics, which also counted as the world championship.

The combined Soviet Union-Russia teams and Canada account for 24 titles and are ranked 1-2.

Canada is coached by the Buffalo Sabres' Lindy Ruff and opens Friday against Belarus in Zurich. Group A also includes Slovakia and underdog Hungary.

Ottawa Senators winger Dany Heatley is back for a sixth worlds with Canada, with 32 goals, two gold medals, two silvers and two tournament MVP awards from previous visits.

The 28-year-old Heatley will be on familiar territory if Canada plays through two group phases in Zurich to reach the quarterfinals in Bern, where he played for part of the 2004-05 NHL lockout season.

Wilson spent six seasons playing in Switzerland in the 1980s, while Bykov played for 10 seasons a decade later and carries a Swiss passport. Russia and Switzerland meet next Tuesday in Group B, which also includes Germany and France.

Former NHL great Jaromir Jagr has to overcome stomach flu to appear for the Czech Republic for the first time since the 2006 Turin Olympics. The Czechs face third-ranked Finland, Norway and Denmark in Group D.

The 37-year-old winger, who led his country to the 2005 title, spent the season with Avangard Omsk in Russia's new Continental Hockey League (KHL).

Representatives of the KHL will attend along with officials from the NHL and NHL Players' Association - but don't expect a total thaw in relations frozen since last summer, when Alexander Radulov walked out on the Nashville Predators to go home with Salavat Yulayev.

The International Ice Hockey Federation was helpless to sanction Radulov until it can broker a transfer agreement, so the 22-year-old Russian will play in his third straight worlds.

"There is still this rivalry between Russia and North America," IIHF president Rene Fasel said. "Emotions are coming up on both sides and it is not so easy to find a compromise."

The PostFinance Arena in Bern is the biggest purpose-built hockey venue in Europe, but championship capacity has been lowered to 12,000. The arena in the Zurich suburb of Kloten will hold almost 7,000, and organizers hope to sell two-thirds of the 450,000 tickets available for the tournament.

Four Panthers players will be suiting up in the games. Keith Ballard will be playing for the United States while their first game opponent, Latvia will have fellow blueliner Karlis Skrastins. Two Cats forwards will suit up for the Czech Republic as Rostislav Olesz and rookie Michael Frolik will be playing for their country. All four skaters start play Saturday.
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