By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada and Russia will renew hockey’s greatest rivalry when they clash in the World Cup of Hockey semi-finals, while the other matchup features a team with no history and possibly no future when Team Europe meet Sweden.
“Canada, Russia always sounds good,” said Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock, looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown.
Indeed, Russia-Canada can set pulses racing and stir emotions in those hockey-mad nations that for decades have watched their teams wage war on the ice for global supremacy of the sport.
In stunning contrast to the rich tradition Russia and Canada bring, Sweden and Team Europe, a rag tag collection of players from eight countries coached by Ralph Krueger, whose day job is chairman of Premiership side Southampton FC, will be a novelty.
While Sweden, gold medal winners at the 2006 Turin Olympics and silver medalists in Sochi, boasts a quality hockey pedigree, they are matched against a gimmicky squad of smaller hockey playing nations cobbled together for this tournament.
“There has never been a team in a tournament like this with no past and no future,” said Krueger. “It’s a crazy situation, zero past, zero future. But I think in life and in sports, anyways, the ability to be in the now is what makes you strong and that’s all we have.
“It’s interesting as a coach when you have nothing to tap into in either direction.”
Hockey’s most storied rivalry shapes up as another classic with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the sport’s two biggest names, leading their respective teams into battle.
At stake is a berth in the best-of-three final with Game One set for Tuesday.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s status as a hockey superpower has faded causing the rivalry to lose some of its heat but none of its allure.
Canada has won gold at three of the last four Winter Games while the once unstoppable Big Red Machine has claimed a single bronze.
“It’s Canada versus Russia, it’s not two players,” said Ovechkin. “Two teams with a great history. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard playing here in Canada but it is also going to be fun.”
Playing with ruthless focus, Canada have dominated the tournament, going 3-0 in round robin play and outscoring opponents 14-3.
The three leading scorers in the tournament – Jonathan Toews (three goals, one assist), Matt Duchene (2-2) and Crosby (2-2) – all wear the Maple Leaf, while netminder Carey Price has the top goals against average of 1.00.
Russia opened with a loss to Sweden and needed to beat Finland in their last group game to reach the semi-finals, but will not lack for motivation against Canada, who knocked them out of the quarter-finals of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and skated away with gold four years later in Sochi.
While Sweden was always expected to challenge for top spot, Team Europe have been the big surprise and could be playing in their first and last World Cup.
In an attempt to avoid unappealing routs, the World Cup opted for hybrid teams in Team Europe and Team North America, made up of 23 and under players from Canada and the United States, rather than including two less competitive countries to the eight-team tournament.
But the National Hockey League and NHL Players Association, co-organizers of the event, have hinted at a more traditional format for 2020 making this a one-off and a last chance for players from eight countries to be crowned world champions.
“What the NHL and the NHLPA decide to do with this is completely out of my hands, I love the project and I’d enjoy doing it again in four years, it would go well with my
other job,” said Krueger.
“We’re just grateful that we got this opportunity this time around and we’re just trying to make the best of it.”
(Editing by Larry Fine)