World Ice Hockey Championship kicks off in Czech Republic

On Saturday, the 2004 World Ice Hockey Championship starts in the Czech Republic. The next two weeks will see a tough competition of the world's best ice hockey teams for the tournament's awards.

The Russian side is led by the renowned coach Viktor Tikhonov.

73-year-old Tikhonov headed the Soviet Union's national team from 1977 to 1991. It was Tikhonov who had on many occasions led Soviet hockey players to glory both at world championships and the Olympics.

"I think our team is well-balanced but the challenges we are facing here are very tough. Players, fans and I have been looking forward to a major success for too long, therefore, any other result but gold medals at this championship would be considered a flop," Viktor Tikhonov said in a recent interview to Russian media.

Unlike their coach, Russian players refrain from making public statements about the team's aspirations at the championship. For example, Alexander Ovechkin, one of Russia's most promising hockey players from Dinamo Moscow, thinks that any place won by Russia at the forthcoming championship will be appropriate and well-deserved. "Good luck is a major factor in such tournaments. I wish we had some of it in the games ahead," Ovechkin pointed out.

In his opinion, all the teams of the world's "big six" are Russia's main rivals at the championship. "There's a balance of forces, therefore we'll have to prepare ourselves properly for every single match. We cannot afford to lose points in games with outsiders. There are no weak teams today, and we simply can't disregard this," the Russian hockey player pointed out.

According to him, even the Japanese and Danish teams playing in the same C group with Russia in the first round of the tournament will try their best to seize points from the leaders. "They have not come to the Czech Republic for fun, they are here to assert themselves. They have ambitions and they are going to fight as hard as it takes," Alexander Ovechkin said.

The Russian team plays its first match against Denmark on Sunday, April 25. Two days later, they take on Sweden and then, on Wednesday, April 28, play their final game in the tournament's first round against the Japanese team. Russia plays all first-round matches in the Czech city of Ostrava.

Three best teams from each group will qualify into the second round which starts on April 30. The championship's final match is scheduled for May 9 in Prague.

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