Russia still has Canada fearful

David Israelson. Toronto Star. 30 1993 .

MUNICH - When Canada meets Russia today in the semifinals of the world hockey championships, the rink rivalry will reflect the New World Hockey Order.

The competition between the countries, while as fierce as ever, is decidedly different from the Cold War days when brash Canadian players faced a Soviet monolith.

Coach Mike Keenan's Canadians, whose uniforms advertise a local beer (Warsteiner), are still brash. But unlike previous international competitions, they are heavily favored to take the tournament's gold medal in the final Sunday should they beat Russia today (TSN, 1:50 p.m.).

Canada defeated Russia 3-1 in a preliminary-round game, contributing to the Russians' record of three wins, a tie and two losses.

Tonight's winner meets either the Czech Republic or Sweden, who meet earlier today for Sunday's second final slot.

Undefeated in their six games so far, the Canadians have dominated the tournament, led by Eric Lindros' 10 goals. He leads the tourney with 16 points.

As a measure of how the mighty have fallen, Russian hockey officials here this week said they are negotiating with the NHL for a lump-sum payment in return for the players sent over to teams in North America.

While this would effectively make Russia a giant farm system for the NHL, the badly needed cash would ensure the survival of the bankrupt country's hockey organization.

The cash-strapped country's plight has made things a bit different on the ice, says Kevin Dineen, Lindros' teammate on Team Canada and the Flyers, but the respect is and will likely always be there.

In the past, "there was a little bit of mystique about them," Dineen said. "Now, you kind of realize they're human and they can be beaten" but it will take a superlative effort.

The change has come partly from familiarity. Ex-Soviets now make up the bulk of the 17 per cent of Europeans who play in the NHL.

For example, Dineen will face off tonight against two Russians, Dimitri Yushkevich and Viacheslav Butsayev, who play on his own NHL team.

After getting to know the Russians and their style, "I don't think they're as invincible," Dineen says.

The NHL connection has also weakened the Russians because, like the Canadians, some of their best players are tied up in playoffs with contending NHL teams.

Yet while the Russians may have caps in hand and holes in their bench, none of the Canadians underestimates them.

"It won't be an easy game by any means," Lindros said yesterday after a team practice. "They've got a lot of skill over there and if you're not ready they'll beat you badly."

Assistant coach Roger Neilson agreed that "they'll be very difficult to beat. They play a physical game, they like to pressure you in spots and they're well coached."

Dineen said the Russians tend to "give you little cheap shots and try to draw that penalty."

But he notes that Canada has been the least-penalized team in the tournament, "so the discipline aspect is really important."

While tonight's game may lack some of the geopolitical drama of previous Canada-Russia (or Soviet) encounters, "it's still a special thing as Canadians" for players to try and beat their long-time international rivals, Dineen says.

Canada has not won a world tournament since 1961, two years before Dineen was born.

"It's been too long since we've won a championship. This is our crack right now and we've got to make the most of it," Dineen added.

France, Austria qualify: France and Austria qualified for next year's Olympic hockey tournament by winning their final games at the world championships yesterday.

France beat Switzerland 3-1, while Austria downed Norway 6-2.

The Swiss, who finished fourth at last year's tournament, will have to qualify for next year's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Switzerland and Norway will meet in a relegation game tomorrow to decide which will stay among the world's top-ranked teams.

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