PARDUBICE, Czech Republic - There is no such a thing as an easy game at the World Junior Hockey Championship and defending champion Canada faces a rugged road at the 2008 best-on-best tournament.
Canada opens the pressure-packed 10-team even against the Czech Republic on Boxing Day and then plays Slovakia on Thursday and then finishes a string of three games in four days against Sweden on Saturday.
A year ago, Canada won its third straight gold medal at the World Junior Championship and had to beat the United States in a lengthy shootout in the semifinal before they played Russia in the gold medal final.
Canada, Russia and the United States are considered pre-tournament favorites this year.
The Canadian team is the country's fifth-youngest of the last 25 years with an average age just under 19. Four of the seven defencemen are 18.
The United States has six players back from the squad that lost 2-1 in the thrilling semifinal shootout against Canada a year ago.
Canada has won the annual junior championship 13 times, once more than the Russians.
"We're going to go there pretending we're the New England Patriots and everybody hates us," Team Canada captain Karl Alzner said last week. "Last year, it was a really big deal to win for the first time overseas in a long time. We want to keep winning overseas.
"It's not an option for us to settle for second-best or third-best. We really want to win again."
After Canada and the Czechs, Pool A includes Sweden, Slovakia and newcomer Denmark.
Pool B includes Russia, the U.S., Finland, Switzerland and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is back after a seven-year absence.
The first-place finisher in each pool gets a bye into the semifinals. The second-and third-place teams in each pool cross over to meet in the quarter-finals. The final will be played on Jan. 5
When Canada mined gold last year on Olympic-size ice in Sweden, it was Canada's first world junior gold in Europe since it defeated the United States in 1997 in Geneva.
The Czech line-up has been bolstered by more than a handful of teenagers who in the Canadian Hockey League, including Jakub Voracek of the Halifax Mooseheads.
The Czechs won back-to-back titles in 20, but their only other medal was a bronze in 2005.
The World Junior Championship is a holiday tradition in Canada that continues to grow every year.
"The country of Canada basically sits down on the couch for two weeks and watches these games," said former NHL defenceman Tom Kurvers, who now scouts for the Phoenix Coyotes. "They'll watch whatever countries are playing and then paint their faces red and cheer for Canada when they're on."
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