Small fish can bite in this tournament

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

INNSBRUCK -- In soccer they're called minnows. They're not expected to eat the big fish. But at the IIHF World Hockey Championships, they often do.

There's an incredible history of massive upsets at this event, dating back to when Poland knocked off the Big Red Machine to give then-Czechoslovakia a title over their Russian oppressors.

EMBARRASSING LOSSES

In recent times Canada has suffered some embarrassing losses early in tournaments.

Like losing 4-3 to Norway in 2000. Like losing 4-1 to France in 1995. Like losing 5-1 to Germany in 1996 and playing to a 3-3 tie the next time they played in 2001.

And the ties. Twice with Italy. Twice against Switzerland. Once versus Latvia.

Two years ago, en route to winning the world championship, Canada battled to a 2-2 tie with Denmark.

Last year Austria managed a 2-2 tie against the team which would complete the first back-to-back, gold-medal combination for our country in 46 years.

It's something to think about as Canada opens the 2005 IIHF World Hockey Championships against Latvia and follows with a game against Slovenia.

Every year there seems to be an inspiring underdog story, usually featuring a goalie, which rocks the Worlds.

Then again, this year there's every reason to believe this will be the year of the overdogs.

Many of the early round upsets have been a result of thrown-together teams by the Big Six hockey nations who have all won at least one world championship since the early '90s, involving NHLers flying over at the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs and being thrown together as a work-in-progress during the preliminary round of pool play.

This year the teams have been together for at least four games, as is the case with both Canada and the U.S. coming over here this year.

"We've had those upsets in the past,'' says Ryan Smyth, the Canadian captain who is playing in his seventh consecutive world championships.

"It's always been a case of having to work out the kinks early in the tournament. This year we're really prepared when they drop the puck,'' he said of today's opener against Latvia and Tuesday's ultimate underdog Slovenia.

"I don't want to say they can't happen. We know every country gets excited to play Canada.

"But being on the same page to start the tournament should make us tougher to beat.''

Coach Marc Habscheid says that's always a factor.

"Everyone loves playing Canada. For a team to play Canada is huge. To beat Canada is a big deal.''

Habscheid said it was great to play a pre-tournament game against the Latvians to familiarize the team with the way they play.

"To play them once and win 3-1 built in some respect,'' he said.

"With Slovenia, we'll get a chance to see them play against the U.S. before we play them.''

Canada is 4-0-1 at the world championships against Latvia, who have somehow managed to end up in the same pool as Canada four straight years. Canada won 4-1 in 2002, 6-1 in 2003 and 2-0 last year.

NEVER PLAYED SLOVENIA

Canada has never played Slovenia.

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia made their world championship debut in Sweden in 2002 and managed to avoid relegation but were back in 'B' pool after Germany 2003. They were undefeated in 'B' pool to earn their way back this year.

While the U.S. isn't one of those nations which have won Worlds in the last decade and a half, they were bronze-medal winners last year. They're not a minnow, although they did finish 13th the year before. But with two games against the Americans in Halifax and Quebec City, there were dress rehearsals, too, for Canada's third game of the tournament Thursday.


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