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Team Canada is poised for a three-peat as they continue final preparations for the 2007 world junior hockey championship in Sweden.

Canada opens defence of its back to back titles against the host Swedes on Boxing Day (11:30 a.m. CST on TSN). On Wednesday, the 2-time defending champions will face off against a strong U.S. squad.

Canada and the U.S. will be joined in Pool A by Sweden, Slovakia and Germany. Pool B features Finland, the Czechs, Russia, Belarus and Switzerland, led by Brandon Wheat Kings' scoring star Juraj Simek.

The teams with the best records in each pool get byes to the semi-finals while the second and third teams cross over to meet in the quarter-finals. A notable change to the tournament format is there will no longer be ties in round-robin games. That means overtime and shootouts will be used in pool play. Three points are awarded for a win in regulation time, two for an overtime or shootout win and a single point for an overtime or shootout loss.

Canada has eleven returning players from last year's gold medal winning team, however, this country hasn't won the tournament in Europe in ten years.

"The travel, the atmosphere over here is totally different from Vancouver," head coach Craig Hartsburg recently told the Canadian Press. "The ice surface is bigger. There's not too many similarities other than the fact that you are playing for the same championship."

Backed by the award winning goalkeeper Tuuka Rask, Finland is expected to challenge for top spot this year while the Americans will try to contend instead of pretend. The U.S. is loaded with talent and NHL draft picks as it was last winter in Vancouver. The Americans' top four defencemen match up well with Canada's and are led by Erik Johnson, the number one pick in the 2006 NHL entry draft by St. Louis.

While western Manitoba hockey fans will be crowding around their personal computers and television screens over the course of the holidays, cheering on Team Canada, don't be surprised if a number of them take to cheering on the Swiss.

With highly touted Simek in the lineup for Switzerland, the tournament favorites can't afford to take this team too lightly. The Slovakian born right-winger has been in all star form for the Western Hockey League's Wheat Kings this season, scoring 22 goals and 40 points during the first half of regular season play. Simek, who will be joined on the team by Kootenay's Amaud Jacquemet told James Shewaga of the Brandon Sun recently that he can't wait to take to the ice next week.

"I think I am prepared for world junior better than last year, so this year it's different and I can't wait. I come with more confidence than the tournament last year because I have played before and I will be an older guy and will have more experience on the team. And I will do my best to help the team to be good in this tournament."

Simek becomes the first Wheat King to play at the world junior tournament since Jordin Tootoo of the NHL's Nashville Predators skated for the silver medal winning Canadian entry in 2003.

While he was born in Presov, Slovakia and he does have dual citizenship, Simek's family has lived in Switzerland since he was four years old and he considers himself Swiss, as does the International Ice Hockey Federation.

"It's my country," Simek told the Brandon Sun. "I'm really happy that it is my country...and I am very excited to see my family and friends and speak my own language."

A sixth round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks, Simek was Brandon's first pick in last July's Canadian Hockey League Import draft. Entering the Christmas break, he was sitting 16th in WHL scoring, fourth in rookie scoring and was tied for the league lead in goals by first year players.

Simek and Team Switzerland will open this year's tournament on December 27th against Belarus.

The Wheat Kings hope to have him back in their lineup in early January. Brandon opens up their post-Christmas schedule on Wednesday, December 27th against the visiting Saskatoon Blades at the Keystone Centre. Tickets are on sale Thursday and Friday at the Keystone box office, which will re-open at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Fans can also call 726-3555 or visit ticketmaster.ca
 
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