Jaromir Jagr to lead Czechs at hockey worlds
KOSICE, Slovakia (AP)
The underdog Czech Republic pulled off a major upset a year ago to win world championship, and NHL great Jaromir Jagr is confident his team is again the one to beat.
''It's for sure we have a better team than we had last year,'' said the forward, who led the Czechs over Russia in last year's final in Germany for their first world title since 2005.
The 39-year-old Jagr said hard work will be the key at the annual tournament, which will be held in Slovakia for the first time and starts Friday with two games in Kosice and two in Bratislava.
''That's my experience,'' said Jagr, who spent 17 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. ''And if you train hard, it's just a question of time for form to come.''
As far as Jagr's form, Czech Republic coach Alois Hadamczik has no need to worry. Jagr didn't play a competitive game for a month but still had two goals and four assists in last week's Czech Hockey Games tournament and won the best forward honor at the warmup event ahead of the worlds.
And Jagr, who has won the Stanley Cup, the Olympics (in 1998) and the worlds, is still eager to get more trophies.
''A year ago, we may have pulled off one of the biggest surprises in 20 years,'' said Jagr, who left the NHL in 2008 for Avangard Omsk in Russia's top league. ''You never know what happens when you do your best.''
The worlds take place during the early stages of the NHL playoffs and coaches are closely watching the developments in North America in the hopes of strengthening their squads when teams are eliminated.
''We still have to wait for those who may join us from the NHL,'' Jagr said.
Russia, for instance, is unlikely to have the same star-studded team it had in 2010 because the Washington Capitals beat the New York Rangers, keeping star player Alex Ovechkin on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for now.
But even without Ovechkin, Russia, which won in 2008 and 2009 and has 26 world titles overall, is likely to be one of the favorites.
The early exit of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks was good news for the Czechs, leaving Michael Frolik free to join veteran Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils and Martin Havlat of the Minnesota Wild in the Czech attack. Roman Pavelec of the Atlanta Thrashers is the leading goalie.
Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets is the captain for Olympic gold medalist Canada, another top challenger. Canada is seeking its 25th world title and possible revenge after losing in the 2008 and '09 finals. With NHLers Andrew Ladd, Dion Phaneuf, Jason Spezza and Travis Zajac, the team proved too good for the Czechs in their last warmup game in Prague on Wednesday, winning 4-2.
''These guys want it,'' Canada assistant coach Scott Arniel said. ''It's all about the gold medal.''
Other contenders include traditionally strong Sweden, Olympic bronze medalist Finland and 2002 world champion and host Slovakia.
After the Slovaks won their only title in Sweden, they were greeted by tens of thousands of fans. If they succeed again at home, a wave of euphoria would grip the entire nation.
Rangers forward Marian Gaborik has joined the home team to boost its title chances but the Slovaks received a blow when the Boston Bruins beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 in Game 7 of their playoff series on Wednesday, meaning Zdeno Chara won't be available to cement Slovakia's defense.
The 16-team tournament starts with four four-team groups in the first round. The top three from each group advance for another batch of round-robin play in two six-team groups.
The top four in each group advance to the quarterfinals to start the knockout stages. The final is set for May 15 in Bratislava's newly reconstructed Orange Arena.