ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — For many players, the hockey world championship is just the build-up to a bigger occasion.
Whether they’re looking to earn a spot at the World Cup of Hockey in September or to make a good impression ahead of the NHL draft, the tournament in Moscow and St. Petersburg offers players a chance to meet or exceed expectations.
Competition can be fierce.
“I think we have a few guys that are in that situation,” U.S. coach John Hynes told The Associated Press after practice in St. Petersburg. “We have a little bit of a younger team, but you also have guys that are looking for the young guns team that will be in the World Cup, so you kind of have a combination, I think.”
The United States will face world champion Canada on Friday, the opening day, in a clash between two young teams. Auston Matthews, an 18-year-old American widely considered to be the favorite for the No. 1 draft pick next month, is due to play against Connor McDavid, last year’s No. 1. McDavid arrived in Russia as a finalist for the Calder Trophy despite missing three months of Edmonton’s season because of injury.
Matthews, who has spent the season playing on big ice in the Swiss league, said he’s trying to block out thoughts of the draft, but admitted it’s hard not to think about his chances of being picked first by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock, also Canada’s World Cup coach, is expected to watch games in St. Petersburg.
“To be drafted there and to have the opportunity there would be unbelievable,” Matthews said. “It’s the hockey mecca of the world and they’re pretty passionate fans, so if that were to happen, it would be pretty special.”
With the St. Petersburg group also containing Finland and highly-rated young forward Patrik Laine — who is Matthews’ top rival for the No. 1 draft pick — McDavid doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight.
“For once, everyone’s a little bit more worried about Matthews and Laine,” McDavid said. “I’m just here trying to enjoy my time and have a good tournament with the team and we’re here to win a gold medal.”
Russia heads up the other group, playing in Moscow.
The Russians traditionally place a high value on winning the world championship but preparations have been turbulent. Neither of the two biggest Russian stars outside the NHL, Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk, are on the roster for Friday’s opener against the Czech Republic.
Radulov was named to a preliminary Russian team but refused to turn up for training for several days before finally participating in practice. He was finally cut from an updated roster Thursday after saying he was injured.
Kovalchuk, who led a Russian walkout during the Canadian anthem at last year’s world championship, was not selected following disciplinary issues and poor recent form.
Russia’s starting goaltender will be Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is backed up by a Russia-based goalie.
Russia’s team also features Pavel Datsyuk, who is weighing up retirement from the NHL, Calder Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.
Despite the focus on the revived World Cup this year, the International Ice Hockey Federation said it won’t detract from the world championship.
IIHF President Rene Fasel said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that the world championship has a clear identity as a showcase for up-and-coming talent, rather than the “best of the best” at the Olympics.
“It gives the opportunity for younger stars to perform on the big stage,” Fasel said, “and I think that’s the way it should also be.”