ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Playing at home and boosted by the presence of Pavel Bure, the NHL's leading goal scorer, Russia begins pursuit of its first world hockey championship in seven years on Saturday.
Reigning Olympic and world champion Czech Republic -- forsaken by longtime coach Ivan Hlinka, mastermind behind the nation's recent successes -- starts the championships troubled and unsure.
The Czechs, who have won before without Olympic hero Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres or NHL scoring leader Jaromir Jagr of Pittsburgh, will now have to show they can win without Hlinka.
Hlinka, who led the nation to an 1998 Olympic gold medal in Nagano and world titles in 1996 and 1999, transformed the Czech Republic into a global hockey power.
But all that could change with Hlinka auditioning for a coaching job in the United States and a dozen Czech NHLers, including Jagr, still chasing the Stanley Cup.
Only three Czech NHL players accepted invitations to play in Russia but the country will have three members of the Olympic gold medal winning team -- Pavel Patera, Martin Prochazka and Jiri Dopita.
There will be no lack of recognizable names on the Russian roster, with Florida's Bure headlining an all-star cast that includes Chicago's Alexei Zhamnov and Valeri Kamensky of the New York Rangers.
Coach Alexandre Yakushev will rely heavily on Bure, but remains hopeful that Alexei Yashin, who sat out the NHL season in a contract dispute with Ottawa, will also be allowed in the lineup.
The NHL has prohibited Yashin from playing at the worlds because he is still under suspension by the Senators. An arbitrator will rule on Yashin's participation Saturday.
But even with home ice advantage and Bure leading the way, the Russians will be hard-pressed to reclaim their glorious past.
After 22 world titles as the Soviet Union, Russia has not won since 1993 in Munich, and missed the podium completely the past six years. The Russians did manage a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Finland, runner-up the last two years, is once again expected to be in the medal hunt, despite having fewer NHL stars than usual. Its top recruits from North America are Montreal's Juha Lind and Olli Jokinen if the Los Angeles Kings.
The United States squad will blend youth and experience, with just half the team stocked from the NHL and the rest coming from European pro, minor and college leagues.
Damian Rhodes of Atlanta will be the No. 1 netminder and the team includes the NHL's all-time American scoring leader, Phil Housley of Calgary, Darby Hendrickson of Vancouver and Derek Plante of Chicago, who helped the Americans to bronze at the 1996 worlds.
Canada, still rounding out its roster with Stanley Cup playoff dropouts, will have plenty of speed and scoring with Buffalo's Curtis Brown, Chicago's Steve Sullivan, Tampa Bay's Mike Johnson and Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi leading the offense with Vancouver's Adrian Aucoin and Ed Jovanovski heading the defense.
Montreal's Jose Theodore, who won gold with Canada's junior national team in 1996, will share netminding duties with Calgary's Fred Brathwaite.
Sweden, the 1998 champions, will be bolstered by the addition of Edmonton goalie Tommy Salo.
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