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TIME FOR WORLD-CLASS HOCKEY
WITH NOTHING ELSE TO DO, STARS GO TO CHAMPIONSHIP

Like a game show's play-at-home version or a year's supply of Turtle Wax, the hockey World Championship always has been a rather dull consolation prize.

It has been called the "losers' tournament" because the NHL participants come from teams not in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This year's edition of the World Championship will be much different.

Since the NHL lockout wiped out the 2005 postseason, every player on the planet is available to skate in this year's World Championship. It should be the most competitive World Championship ever staged, and with the NHL's participation in the 2006 Olympics in doubt, this could be the last great international tournament for a while.

The 16-nation tournament opens Saturday and runs through May 15 in Austria.

Two-time defending world champ Canada will begin pool play against Latvia at 10:15 a.m. Saturday. USA will open against Slovenia at 10:15 a.m. Sunday.

With the absence of some superstars, the talent might not be quite as sublime as the World Cup tournament played last summer. But the quality won't be diminished too much, and the atmosphere in Vienna and Innsbruck might be just as electric as it was in Toronto.

The players seem every bit as anxious to play meaningful hockey as the fans are to watch it.

West Seneca native and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Aaron Miller is one of the few elder statesmen on USA's youthful roster.

Miller, who chose not to play in Europe over the winter, lost $3.25 million in salary because of the lockout and knows how much the lost season has hurt the sport. But he's trying to find a positive spin somewhere, and 16 days of hockey could go a long way toward making him feel better about the future.

"Maybe this year is a blessing in disguise," Miller told the Associated Press at USA training camp earlier this month in Lake Placid.

Miller will turn 34 this summer and has battled myriad injuries. He played only 35 games in 2003-04 and 49 the season before.

"For me, it's how long my body will hold up," Miller said. "I'm not going to make it to 40, but I'll play as long as I can. I don't know how to do anything else."

Aside from Miller and USA teammate Brian Gionta of suburban Rochester, there won't be as much local flavor in this year's tournament than in the past.

The World Championships have been rife with Sabres the previous three years because they failed to reach the postseason. Last year's tournament featured 11 Sabres, including Austrian puck magician Thomas Vanek, who had been drafted in 2003 but hadn't signed yet.

Buffalo players represented the top scorers for Austria (Vanek), Germany (Jochen Hecht) and Slovakia (Miroslav Satan), the second-leading scorers for USA (Chris Drury) and Canada (Daniel Briere), and Finland's starting goaltender (Mika Noronen).

But with so much more talent available this year, it was tougher for players such as J.P. Dumont, Mike Grier and Jeff Jillson to make the cut. Only five Sabres are suiting up for their homelands, and none of them are North Americans.

Russia's roster includes winger Maxim Afinogenov and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin. The other Sabres in the tourney are Hecht, Satan and Czech Republic winger Ales Kotalik.

Vanek is on Austria's roster, but the young sniper will be skating for Rochester in the American Hockey League playoffs.
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com