Russia Aims to End Its Title Drought

Russia is hoping to break the curse that has plagued world ice hockey championship hosts for more than two decades by winning the gold and ending its own 14-year old title drought.

The Soviet Union was the last team to triumph on home ice when the championship was held at the old Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow in 1986.

With just minutes left in the title-deciding game against Sweden, Vyacheslav Bykov scored the winning goal to give the Soviets a 3-2 victory.

A hockey superpower in Soviet days, capturing a record 23 world and eight Olympic gold medals, the Russians have not tasted success since 1993.

Now as Russia's head coach, Bykov is hoping to end his team's barren run.

Bykov, who also played on the 1993 team that won his country's last global title, would be well advised to remember the last time the world championship was held in Russia.

In 2000, the team, loaded with many top players from the National Hockey League, ended up in 11th place -- the country's worst finish at a major international competition. The St. Petersburg fiasco not only cost head coach Alexander Yakushev his job but also triggered widespread changes in national hockey.

Bykov, however, does not want to dwell on the past.

"That was then, this is now," said the former center forward, who succeeded Vladimir Krikunov as head coach following another dismal showing at last year's world championship in Riga.

"We can't worry about the past. We have to focus on the task in hand -- to win the gold for Russia," added the 46-year-old, who won five world and two Olympic titles from 1983 to 1993.

Former Soviet goalkeeper Vladislav Tretyak, who became the country's ice hockey chief last year, is feeling the pressure, having promised President Vladimir Putin the country would win gold this time around.

Insiders say Tretyak looked uneasy at last year's presidential council on sports at the Kremlin when Putin asked him when Russia was finally going to win the world title.

Tretyak, who won 10 world and three Olympic titles in the 1970s and '80s and featured in the 1972 series against the NHL All-Stars before starting a successful political career, knows all too well that another flop on home ice could cost him and Bykov their jobs.

Bykov and Tretyak want to avoid the same mistakes Yakushev made in 2000 by relying solely on aging NHL stars.

Bykov axed several high-profile NHL veterans, such as former national team captains Alexei Yashin and Alexei Kovalev, while former All-Stars, forward Sergei Fedorov and goalkeeper Nikolai Khabibulin, have turned down the invitation to play in Moscow.

Bykov was also forced to recall the talented but unpredictable Ilya Kovalchuk after being heavily criticized in the Russian press for his decision to drop the left wing, who led the NHL in scoring in 2004.

Apart from Kovalchuk, Russia, as always, has a lot of firepower up front, with last year's top rookie Alexander Ovechkin and this year's leading candidate for the NHL Rookie of the Year award, Evgeni Malkin, leading the way.

With no proven NHL goalkeeper, however, the Russians are most vulnerable in goal, as both Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks and Ilya Bryzgalov of the Anaheim Ducks are still involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs.