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Hockey Dream Teams from around globe

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Approximately 160 NHL players from 12 different countries will make their way to the Wasatch Front next month to compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics. That's about a third more than Nagano in 1998 when 120 NHLers from nine countries hit the ice.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicHockey players from around the globeRequires Adobe Acrobat.

With that much high-level talent playing, it should make for one competitive hockey tournament at the Salt Lake Games. While 14 teams will participate in all, the NHL-heavy "Dream Teams" from the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden will be the biggest medal contenders. They each qualified for an automatic berth into the final round by placing at the 1999 IIHF World Championships, so their players will stay with their NHL teams through the first week of the Games.

Eight other nations — Austria, Belarus, France, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Ukraine — will split into two groups and play a three-game round-robin with the top two teams earning spots among the Elite Eight.

The second round will also be a three-game round-robin, with one qualifier joining three of the Super Six in two four-team groups. Play in this round will determine seeding for the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals, semifinals and two medal games will be single elimination.

Here's a look at each of the Dream Teams:

UNITED STATES

The Winter Games are being held on U.S. soil, so you know what that means? A gold medal for the red, white and blue, of course. Right? After all, the Americans have won the Olympic hockey tournament the last two times it took place here (1980 in Lake Placid and 1960 in Squaw Valley), and they medaled the only other time the Winter Games were in the United States (silver at Lake Placid, 1932).

Having the miracle worker himself — Herb Brooks — coach this team certainly appears to be in Team USA's favor. He knows the international game, how to coach the bigger ice surface and how to get the gold (with amateurs, at least).

Having a roster chock-full of talent — especially among the forwards — and a biased home crowd going bonkers are pluses, too.

The United States has sure-fire weapons galore on the offensive side, including a potent list of forwards that could give any defense fits. Namely — and who not to name? — Mike Modano, Brett Hull, John LeClair, Chris Drury, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Bill Guerin, Brian Rolston, Adam Deadmarsh, Doug Weight, Mike York and Scott Young (if his injured eye is better in time). One word to describe this bunch: loaded. Another word: wow. Or maybe: golden?

A lot of pressure will be put on the U.S. defense, which isn't the biggest or quickest. Still, the blue-liners are well-known commodities in the NHL — captain Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Gary Suter, Phil Housley and Brian Rafalski for starters.

The two MikesRichter and Dunham — give the United States a solid 1-2 shot-stopping tandem. Richter has more international experience and will likely get the nod as the starter. ESPN expert Darren Pang describes him as being "hungry and motivated to be the best in the game."

There are things the United States will have to surmount in order to stand atop the winners' podium on the final day of the Salt Lake Games. For instance, the rink is wider (15 feet compared with the NHL ice), giving an advantage to European players who grew up playing on the spacious surface.

The United States doesn't have a great, recent history as far as the Olympic tournaments go, either. They fizzled on the ice and flared-up off it at Nagano four years ago in what was one of the most embarrassing episodes in U.S. hockey memory. Then there's the fact that the Americans haven't really come close to earning a medal of any color since the Lake Placid miracle over two decades ago.

CANADA

Despite not having won a gold medal in 50 years, the star-studded Canadians are the favorites. Bill Clement, ESPN's hockey analyst, lauded Olympic GM Wayne Gretzky for doing a "masterful job of balancing and blending a lineup that has all its bases covered."

On offense, Canada is loaded with premiere players, including Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Owen Nolan and former Salt Lake Golden Eagle Theo Fleury. Patrick Roy won't be in the net, but goaltending will still be a strength with Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur and/or Curtis Joseph between the pipes. They'll be supported by a stellar defensive squad that includes Adam Foote, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Rob Blake.

Injuries could be the downfall of Canada. Lemieux's back, Lindros' knee and Ryan Smith's ankle are a few of the concerns.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Starting from the top, the Czech Republic appears to have a great shot at repeating as gold medalist from 1998. Dominik Hasek stood on his head the entire Olympic tourney in Nagano, and he's capable of dominating in goal again in his swan song. Then there's Jaromir Jagr, whose superstar skills rival anybody's in the world. His knee injury is worrisome, though.

Another difficulty for a repeat is that there are a whole lot of unfamiliar faces on the squad — a dozen or so new players since '98.

FINLAND

Scoring could be the biggest struggle for the Finnish team, which only has two legitimate score-at-any-time threats — Teemu Selanne, the overall leading scorer at the Oly tourney in 1998, and Jere Lehtinen. One big downer: Saku Koivu, who along with Selanne had 10 points in Nagano, is no longer on the team. Speed is a strength, though, and is what makes them a scary squad on the wider ice. Goaltending might also be a shaky area for Finland as it relies on youngsters like Jani Hurme and Felix Potvin.

RUSSIA

"A veritable 'Who's Who?' of flash and dash" is one way Clement described the Russians stable of forwards, which includes the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev and Alexei Yashin. Throw Pavel Bure into the mix — the third-highest scorer in the '98 Games — if his broken hand is healed well enough by then and Russia is one mean, offensive machine.

The Russians defense isn't as strong, but Darius Kasparaitis and gang can hold their own. Nikolai Khabibulin is plenty capable of building an impenetrable brick wall in goal.

SWEDEN

Clement calls Peter Forsberg Sweden's X, Y and Z factors. That doesn't bode well for the Swedes seeing as the talented forward's playing days have been put on ice for at least four months due to recent surgery on his left leg. Mats Sundin is Sweden's only other top-quality playmaker.

Sweden's new X-Y-Z factor? Goalie Tommy "Super" Salo. The NHL All-Star led the Utah Grizzlies to the IHL's Turner Cup championship after helping his homeland strike gold in the 1994 Olympics. Pang said Salo "may be the most underrated goalie in the NHL. There isn't any doubt in my mind that he and Sweden could win gold."

SLOVAKIA

If the Slovakians can get into the final round using some subs, they might be able to make a serious medal run with all their NHL guys. Peter Bondra, Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik and Miroslav Satan are some of their top NHL scorers. Utah hockey fans will remember two of their other best forwards. Zigmund Palffy skated for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in 1993-94 and Vladimir Orszagh played for the Utah Grizzlies for most of three seasons from 1996-98.


E-mail: jody@desnews.com