A lot on the line for Team Canada

Finnish national team coach Jukka Jalonen has been a controversial figure in that country, most...

Finnish national team coach Jukka Jalonen has been a controversial figure in that country, most recently for only including four NHLers on this year's team. (REUTERS)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:00 PM ET

HELSINKI - For Canada, it’s a special year.

“It’s halfway between a normal world championships and the Olympics,” said Team Canada general manager Kevin Lowe at the Helsinki airport Wednesday.

He was speaking both in terms of quality of team and importance of event.

But it’s not all about Canada.

It’s an unusual year for a lot of nations at these worlds.

For starters, there’s all sorts of controversy surrounding the host nation.

Finland coach Jukka Jalonen picked only four NHL players for the team — Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, Kari Lehtonen and Valtteri Filppula — rejecting Petteri Nokelainen and Lennart Petrell, the latter being from Lowe’s Edmonton Oilers.

Many Finns turned down invitations, including Teemu Salanne and Saku Koivu.

“Basically NHL status matters zero, and that’s caused a mini WC-gate inside the circles,” respected veteran Finnish hockey writer Vesa Rantanen explained.

“It’s been felt among Finnish NHLers that Jalonen doesn’t appreciate them too much and, after putting in two Finnish league players and taking out two NHLers, it is felt it is almost a disadvantage to play in the NHL if you want to make the national team.”

But hold it. Didn’t Finland win the world championship last year?

Again Rantanen has an explanation for me.

“Last year, when they won, the whole country went crazy.

“Naked people were swimming in fountains.

“The team landed the next morning in Helsinki and assistant coach Pasi Nurminen took a beautiful nose-dive, and almost slammed his head through the trophy. There was a lot of controversy since the team and staff were so drunk that it looked stupid.

“The situation got out of hand, and not only a little. It was brutal. Team manager Timo Jutila missed the parade because he was so drunk he couldn’t walk.

“Both these episodes are burned deep into Finnish folklore now and will never be wiped out.”

As you arrive here, you notice multi-story murals featuring photos of a Finland hockey player and the slogan: “Break The Spell.”

Obviously that’s referring to the fact no host team has won this tournament since the Soviet Union in 1986. Finland is also attempting to become the first since the Soviet Union in 1979 to defend a gold medal on home ice.

Good slogan, right?

But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Finland has hosted this thing six times and, every time, they’ve not only failed to win the thing but have been a undisputed disaster.

Anyway, that’s one host country.

This year, for the first time ever, there are two host nations. Stockholm is playing host to the other pool. Next year they’ll do it the other way around with the medal round in Stockholm.

The Swedes, who thought they had last year’s gold medal in the bag when they suffered the humiliation of losing 6-1 in the final to their Scandinavian rivals, aren’t worried about next year. They’re worried about this year.

This year the Swedes, who have had a significant part of their team together for a month, lost their last Ssix pre-tournament games, including one Tuesday to the just-off-the-plane Americans in Gavle.

Then there’s a bunch of other nations who are coming to the worlds this year putting massive importance on it because it’s the last event for seeding and qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

Arriving at the same time as Canada Wednesday were Belarus and Slovakia.

Towering over all at the baggage carousel was Zdeno Chara. The Boston Bruin said he’s here for one reason.

“My country needs me to come here and play hard for an Olympic berth,” he said.

Slovakia, the nation Canada opens the tournament against here Friday, currently ranks 10th. The top nine win byes to the Olympics when this tournament has concluded. The remaining three berths will come from three mini-tournaments without the availability of NHL players. You don’t want to end up in one of those.

Switzerland, Germany and Norway go into the tournament sitting 7-8-9 with Slovakia, Belarus, Denmark and Latvia all on the bubble, bunched up scant points behind them.

Canada failed to make the medal round in each of the last two years and finds itself in a pickle going into this tournament, too, having dropped from No. 1 to No. 5 in the world rankings, after winning gold at Vancouver 2010.

Finland is ranked No. 1, Sweden 2, Russia 3 and the Czech Republic 4, with the Americans a few points back of Canada in sixth.

Thus Hockey Canada put Steve Yzerman and his Sochi 2014 Olympic management team together early and they challenged Canada’s top available young stars to come here to win gold, and get the No. 1 seeding with all the scheduling, dressing room, practice time, etc. advantages back.

Seems kind of trivial, compared to what some of the other counties are here dealing with this year.

“Not to us,” said Lowe.

If Canada missed the medal round for a third straight year – well, lets not go there yet.

This is the best team Canada has brought to the world championships since the lockout year and maybe any year before that.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS

HELSINKI GROUP

CANADA — Loaded. Only the 2005 lockout team had more talent. This group is young and motivated to get back to No. 1 for Sochi 2014 Olympic seeding. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Sharp, John Tavares, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd. defencemen Duncan Keith, Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester and goalteder Cam Ward are NHL stars.

FINLAND — Defending gold medal winners over Sweden in last year's final, Finland is back to "Break The Spell" of no team having won at home since the Soviet Union days. And Finland fans were shocked and dismayed to find a final roster which only includes four NHLers 1/3 goaltender Kari Lehtonen and forwards Valttery Fillpula, Jussi Jokinin and Mikko Koivu.

SLOVAKIA — Zdeno Chara and Tomas Kopecky have come back to lead this team to Olympic qualification. Miroslav Satan, now playing for Slavan Bratislava, is also on the team. Interesting last decade or so for Slovakians. Won gold, silver and bronze in a four-year stretch ending in 2004, but haven't been in the medal round since.

UNITED STATES — Americans managed to field a lineup of all NHLers but for every player here you can name someone better who stayed home. But with Jimmy Howard in goal, Cam Fowler, Jack Johnson and Jeff Petry on defence and Bobby Ryan, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny up front, USA should make it to quarter-finals with a chance to improve on IIHF No. 6 seeding.

SWITZERLAND — Feature former Portland Winterhawk Nino Niederreiter, 19, highest-drafted Swiss player of all time (fifth overall, NY Islanders) and fellow Islander Mark Streit, along with Luca Sbisa of Anaheim. Otherwise all-Swiss league lineup for the nation, which returned from relegation in 1998 and haven't finished outside the top 10 since.

BELARUS — Eighth straight year for Belarus at world championship. Have finished 10th, 6th,11th, 9th, 8th, 10th and 14th. And coming here from Minsk with a new Finnish coach Kari Heikkila, off successes as a KHL coach, there's optimism that last year's scare with relegation won't be repeated. Heikkila happily greeted the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

FRANCE — Remember Montreal Canadiens goalie Crystobal Huet? He's now 36, plays for Fribourg in Swiss League and anchors l'equipe de France. Senators Stephane DaCosta only current NHLer on team. With Winnipeg native Dave Henderson taking over, France made it back to big top four years ago after being out six of previous seven years due to relegation. Two 12ths. Two 14ths.

KAZAKHSTAN — Back from relegation after finishing 16th at world championships in 2010 with a roster featuring one goaltender, one defenceman and one forward from the KHL, the rest of the players hail from Barys Astana, Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, HK Astana and Sary-Arka Karaganda in Kazakhstan. But no real reason to fear them.

STOCKHOLM GROUP

SWEDEN — Six straight exhibition losses going into tournament is mystifying for a team with 13 NHLers including Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Johan Franzen, 39-year-old Daniel Alfredsson and 19-year-old Calder Trophy candidate Gabriel Landeskog. The Swedes have made it to the medal round for the last 11 tournaments.

RUSSIA — Back-to-back gold medal winners in 2008 and 2009 and a silver medal-winner in 2010, Russia finished fourth last year. Dominated by KHL players as expected, they found spots for Yevgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and a handful of others. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has a young team like Canada with a focus on building for Olympic host year in 2014.

CZECH REPUBLIC — Gold in 2010. Bronze in 2011. Czechs go with mostly Czech leaguers and KHLers. No NHL goalies. Jakub Kindl is the only NHLer on defence. Ales Hemsky, Michael Frolik, David Krejci, Milan Michalek, Thomas Plekanec, Jiri Tlusty and Tomas Vincour are only NHLers up front. Former Czech defector and 1994 Canadian Olympian Petr Nedved, 40, to debut with home nation.

GERMANY — Matched Canada's results by getting to the quarter finals and losing each of the last two years. Germany has only been relegated once since 2000 but was saved by being tournament host in 2010 after finishing 15th the year before. The only NHLer is Marcel Goc of Florida. Justin Kreuger of AHL Charlotte and three other play outside of the German league.

NORWAY — Seven straight years at the world hockey championships now for the Norwegians under coach Roy Johansen with a best-ever sixth-place finish last year. Fifteen players now performing in the Swedish Elite League. No NHLers, however. And only former Edmonton Oiler Patrick Thoresen, who now plays for St. Petersburg in Russia.

LATVIA — Ted Nolan coaches a team made up of 15 members of Dynamo Riga, which finished seventh in its inaugural season in Western Division of KHL. Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators is the only NHLer in the lineup. Latvia has made it to the worlds for 16 consecutive years but only made it to the quarter finals four times.

DENMARK — Tenth straight qualification for the tournament for the Danes, who have never finished higher than eighth (2010). Were 11th last year. Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks, Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders, Philip Larsen of the Dallas Stars and Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens are NHLers for this nation, which used to have none.

ITALY — Back from relegation after finishing 15th in 2010, former Oshawa Generals Memorial Cup-winning coach Rick Corniacchia, who also coached Canada at the world junior in 1992, has five pro players currently playing in Sweden or Finland. Unusual is NCAA player Thomas Larkin of Colgate University. Italian on his mother's side? Usually a few Canadian connections on this team.


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