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Lockout opens door for stars at worlds

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Mario Lemieux, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and Mats Sundin are skipping the world hockey championships. Still, this tournament is loaded with stars thanks to the NHL lockout.

Most teams usually rely on players whose NHL teams miss the playoffs or are eliminated early. Not this time.

The lockout that shut down the NHL this season has left most of the best players free to compete in the two-week, 16-team event that starts today and ends May 15 in Vienna. The rosters are impressive, though not as strong as the ones from last year's World Cup and the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Canada won the last two world titles and is favored to complete the hat trick. Russia, which beat 2003 and 2004 worlds runner-up Sweden in two games in last week's European Hockey Tour final, appears a strong challenger.

The United States has a younger and stronger team than the one that captured the bronze medal last year in the Czech Republic.

"This tournament is going to get a lot more attention this year than in the past, and there's going to be a lot of young guys who have a chance to step up," said Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern, one of eight players returning from last year's US squad.

The US has two stars who didn't play last year: Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars, the captain, and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues. Modano has been one of the NHL's top scorers for nearly two decades, and Weight is one of the best playmakers.

The US, coached by Peter Laviolette of the Carolina Hurricanes, opens against Slovenia tomorrow. Canada plays Latvia today.

"I'd expect that with the European teams, 95 percent of their players will have played the entire season," Canada general manager Steve Tambellini said. "The hardest-hit teams will probably be Canada and the United States as far as getting up to speed."

Many on Canada's team played in Europe this winter. Some, including star goalie Martin Brodeur, will be going in cold except for some exhibitions. Lemieux, Sakic, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, and Scott Niedermayer passed up the worlds. Goaltender Jose Theodore played briefly in Sweden but is absent. So are Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Vincent Lecavalier.

Canada still has Dany Heatley (Atlanta), Joe Thornton (Boston), Rick Nash (Columbus), and Ed Jovanovski (Vancouver).

"On paper, it's probably one of the best teams we've ever had," said Brenden Morrow, who helped Canada win the gold last year in Prague. "The European teams are pretty stacked up, too, and they've played hockey all year."

Sweden coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was impressed by the young Russians after they swept the Swedes in the European Hockey Tour final series.

"It was like the old Soviet era," Gustafsson said. "Suddenly Russia plays like a team."

Russia features Alexander Ovechkin, 19, and Evgeni Malkin, 18, last year's top NHL draft picks. There's also Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Yashin, and Viktor Kozlov, all established NHL stars.

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