TORONTO (Reuters) - The hockey world championships return to the sport’s birthplace and spiritual home this week when Canada hosts the tournament for the first time.
But in a country where the midget championships attracted more television viewers than last weekend’s Spanish F1 Grand Prix, it is uncertain if the May 2-18 competition can capture the attention of Canadians in the grips of Stanley Cup fever.
Due to the conflict with the NHL playoffs, the world championships have received only passing interest in Canada, who has won more world titles (24) than any other country but never hosted the competition.
As part of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) centenary celebrations, however, the decision was made to give Canada its marquee event with Hockey Canada officials relishing the opportunity.
With the 2010 Olympics on the horizon the timing could not be better for Hockey Canada, who have made no secret they expect the championships to provide players and coaches with a taste of the pressure that awaits them in Vancouver.
The results will also impact the 2010 Games directly with the final rankings after the championships determining the seedings for Vancouver.
Canada is currently third behind Sweden and Finland.
The Canadians will start the 16-team tournament as favorites when play begins in Quebec City and Halifax on Friday, but also face high expectations from its hockey-mad public who demand nothing less than a fourth gold in six championships.
History, however, may count against them with the former Soviet Union the last team to win gold at home, in Moscow in 1986.
Cobbling together a lineup from teams eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Canada will still field a squad deep in international experience with plenty of firepower.
Phoenix Coyotes Shane Doan, who captained last year’s gold medal winners, is back along with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Rick Nash, the 2007 championship’s most valuable player.
The attack will be led by the Ottawa Senators duo Jason Spezza, who finished tied for sixth in NHL scoring with 92 points and Dany Heatley, a 40 goal scorer for the third straight season.
No team in the tournament, however, comes armed with a more explosive attack than Russia, who will be led by the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL goal scoring champion with 65 and Hart trophy finalist for league MVP.
Atlanta Thrashers Ilya Kovalchuk, who finished second to Ovechkin with 52 goals, gives Russia an unmatched one-two scoring punch, rekindling memories of the free-wheeling glory days of the Big Red Machine.
While the once mighty Russians will be bidding to end a 15-year gold medal drought, the United States have not won the title since 1960.
The Americans will be counting on youth to return them to the podium with rookie of the year candidate Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and fellow youngsters Peter Mueller (Phoenix Coyotes) and Tom Gilbert (Edmonton Oilers) leading the team.
Perennial medal contenders, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic will field their familiar mix of NHL players and local league players hoping the chemistry results in a winning formula.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury