Canada may be the two-time defending champion but it enters this year's Spengler Cup men's hockey tournament as the definite underdog.
That's because Canada will be the only entry in the five-team competition at Davos, Switzerland, without the luxury of locked-out NHL players.
"Davos has a very good roster, they've got Rick Nash, Joe Thornton and Oleg Petrov and some other guys," says national team head coach Marc Habscheid. "All the teams will be very good.
"It's different from other years in that the other teams will have some NHL players but we've stayed status quo with what we want to do, we've stayed away from locked-out players."
Hockey Canada decided back in October that it would refrain from using locked-out NHL players in order to begin preparations for the February 2006 Winter Games in Turin, where there's a strong possibility of no NHL participation.
So while other countries have taken advantage of having their NHL stars at home, Canada entered teams in the Deutschland Cup and Loto Cup solely based on non-NHL Canadians playing in Europe as well as some AHL players. Canada has a 4-2-1 record in those two tournaments combined, including a 5-3 win over a U.S. team stacked with NHL players at the Deutschland Cup.
Canada lost 5-3 to host Slovakia at the Loto Cup last Saturday, a squad that included NHL stars Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Pavol Demitra.
"We've been trying with the two previous tournaments to get as many players involved with the team as we can so that we can evaluate and see where they are," Habscheid said. "At the Loto Cup we had players from 10 different leagues and countries. And the Spengler gives us another chance to do that as well."
The end goal is Turin, Habscheid says, so he once again stayed away from the lure of NHL players who would have jumped at the chance to play in the Spengler.
"It would have been easy for us (to stack the Spengler roster with NHLers), there's lots of guys who would have loved to spend Christmas in Davos. But we have to consider the big picture and these players have been good to us."
Given that other European leagues are not on break during the Spengler Cup, Canada stocked its roster mostly with Swiss league players, the likes of forwards Jeff Shantz, Hnat Domenichelli, Stacey Roest, Yves Sarault, Jeff Toms, Randy Robitaille and Jan Alston - all veterans of the European game.
Corey Hirsch will share goaltending duties with Manitoba Moose (AHL) netminder Alex Auld, who saw NHL playoff action with Vancouver last spring.
The defence is anchored by Jamie Heward, a member of Canada's 2003 IIHF world champions, as well as other Swiss league players in Mark Astley, Jame Pollock, Dan Laperriere and Patrice Boileau. Regan Kelly of the AHL's St. John's Maple Leafs and Chris Belanger of the ECHL's Charlotte Checkers round out the defence corps.
Canada, which has won six of the last 10 Spengler Cups, opens defence of its title Sunday against Russian club Metallurg Magnitogorsk - a side that includes Boston Bruins star defenceman Sergei Gonchar, Anaheim Mighty Ducks sniper Petr Sykora and the second overall pick in last June's NHL entry draft, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin.
Canada then faces host Davos on Monday, a team that also includes forward Niklas Hagman of the Florida Panthers.
Czech champion Sparta Prague is next on Dec. 29, a club that features forwards Petr Nedved of the Phoenix Coyotes, David Vyborny of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Josef Melichar of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jan Hlavac of the New York Rangers and defenceman Karel Pilar of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Canada closes out its round-robin Dec. 30 against IFK Helsinki, a side that includes defenceman Marek Zidlicky of the Nashville Predators, winger Jarkko Ruutu of the Vancouver Canucks and former Los Angeles Kings blue-liner Jere Karalahti.
The top two teams in the round-robin meet in the Dec. 31 championship game.
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