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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Ready for Hockey Madness

ST. PETERSBURG -- The potholes have been covered up, the rubbish cleared away and the brand-new sparkling $80 million ice palace swept for bombs: St. Petersburg is at last ready for the Ice Hockey World Championships, which start Saturday.

The country's very own "Russian Rocket," Pavel Bure - representing Russia in the tournament for the first time - will share the limelight with a hockey-playing moose, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev and President-elect Vladimir Putin when the tournament opens.

Hundreds of city workers and soldiers were working frantically Friday to make the stadium as shiny clean as the ice that the U.S. and Swiss teams will skate out on as they launch the 12-team tournament, which runs through May 14. Russia's first game will be Saturday evening at the Ice Palace against France. The authorities have been frantically preparing St. Petersburg for the flood of visitors expected for the tournament. Thousands of extra local police and security guards will be doing their best to ensure that spectators can concentrate on enjoying the second-best hockey the world has to offer - most of the world's finest are still in the United States competing in the National Hockey League playoffs.

Dozens of hostages were freed Thursday by the security services in mock operations as the police burst into rooms with heavy weapons, rehearsing their response to any possible terrorist attack.

National television showed dozens of German shepherd dogs - and one King Charles spaniel - checking out the inside of the stadium. The dogs, who served in Chechnya, their handlers said, were sniffing for explosives. "This one saved three patrols," said one dog handler on television.

Security is high because of the war in Chechnya and the impending visit of Putin, who is expected to attend the opening at the very least.

The return of the championship to Russia for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union has attracted a number of the country's greatest players for the chance to play at home. The tournament's first appearance in St. Petersburg is the first time the championships have been held in this country since the 1986 tournament in Moscow.

"I'm going to St. Petersburg because it will be my first and probably last appearance before my own fans at the world championships," Bure said when he arrived earlier this week.

"He's not only one of the strongest hockey players in the world, he's the leader. Thank God that a leader has arrived for the national team," said Gennady Tsygunov, former national team coach, in an interview published Friday by the country's best selling sports paper, Sport Express.

Bure is the star of Russia's pack of NHL players, but the presence beside him of Alexei Zhamnov of the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers star Valery Kamensky - and the still possible inclusion of Ottawa Senators holdout Alexei Yashin - means the team starts as rare favorites.

Dominant in the World Championships of the 1960s and 1970s as the Soviet Union, hockey has conspicuously flopped in the last 10 years.

The national side hasn't won the tournament or even a medal since 1993, when it grabbed the gold in Germany, beating Sweden 3-1 in the final. Optimism is high, with this year's lineup already dubbed Russia's own Dream Team.

"I'm 100 percent certain that our team will get first place," said Boris Mikhailov, the legendary Soviet forward who in 1993 coached the last Russian team to win the World Championships, in Sport Express.

If it comes, victory will be May 14 at the shiny new stadium in front of the governor and the newly inaugurated president. It will also coincide with St. Petersburg elections for governor.

Many doubted whether the new stadium would be finished on time, and several local politicians have asked where the money came from for the event. However, by the end of this week there was only praise.

"A Super Palace for a Dream Team" was Sport Express saw matters on Friday. The shining glass exterior and ultra-modern facilities inside make the Ice Palace one of the best sports stadium in Russia and even Europe, visiting officials said.

Every crowd member gets a good view, instant replays show on the large television screens and cartoons of the tournament's mascot, a goofy looking moose with a stick and puck, are flashed up on the screen during stoppages.

"This is a terrific building and I'm really impressed," said Butch Goring, assistant coach for the Canadian team, after Wednesday's game against Russia, which the home side won 4-3. "I've been in arenas all through Canada and the United States, and this is as good as anything that I've seen there."

"There is a Russian saying that the first pancake always comes out wrong," Viktor Vlasov, deputy general director of the arena corporation, said after the first games - exhibition matches between Canada and Russia on Wednesday and Thursday - held at the stadium. "But this trial run was 100 percent successful. Any difficulties were very minor."

High ticket prices for the tournament - reaching $150 for games in the final rounds - have priced out many locals, and by the start of this week only 20 percent of all tickets had been sold.

Fans did get a chance at free tickets earlier this month, when the city announced that all comers for a citywide subbotnik, community cleanup effort, would receive free passes. Over 350,000 St. Petersburgers turned out to sweep the streets, plant 8,500 new bushes and 536 trees across the city and those who cleared up near the Ice Palace were rewarded with free tickets, officials said.

The city has invested heavily in sprucing up the city for the thousands of foreign visitors expected for the championships.

Many of the roads in the center have been relaid in the last weeks, although judging by one of the first to have been completed - Prospekt Bolshevikov near the stadium, which has already begun to sag - haste may have been more important than quality.

Galina Stolyarova and Irina Titova contributed to this report.