The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Canada gets set to face biggest underdog at world championship

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KLOTEN, Switzerland - Even though Canadian goalie Chris Mason is attending the IIHF World Hockey Championship for the third time, you won't find his name in any official tournament statistics.

At least not yet.

His entire body of work to this point includes watching a lot of games from the stands and dressing just once as a backup - two years ago in Moscow. That, however, is soon to change because coach Lindy Ruff has named Mason the starter for Sunday's game against Hungary (TSN, 4:30 p.m. ET, tape delay).

It will be an event that has been a long time in the making for the 33-year-old goalie.

"I can't wait," Mason said after practice on Saturday. "They told me before that I might be playing that game and I started getting nervous and excited about it. It's a dream come true.

"Even when I was here as the third guy, I came over and got to see my name on that Team Canada jersey (and) I just couldn't believe it."

His enthusiasm seems as genuine as can be.

It was only days ago that the St. Louis Blues starter was participating in the NHL playoffs, but there's no hint of any lingering disappointment.

Mason didn't even have time to do an exit interview with Blues coach Andy Murray before he was on a plane to Switzerland to answer the call of his country. He simply loves putting on the Maple Leaf.

"When you're a kid and you're watching Team Canada, it's just such a proud thing to be a part of," said Mason. "To watch your country playing against other countries, I just think it's the ultimate team to play for."

The Canadians will be going up against the ultimate underdogs in their second game of the tournament. Hungary is competing at the top level of the world championship for the first time in 70 years, having earned a berth by winning a lower-tiered event last year in Sapporo, Japan.

The country has never produced an NHL player - goalie Levente Szuper and forward Janos Vas were each drafted - and arrived here with a lawyer and physical education teacher on its roster. Even still, the Hungarian team came within 13 seconds of tying Slovakia in the opener before allowing a goal and losing 4-3.

Most of the players still managed to leave the ice at Kloten Arena with a smile.

"This is like their Stanley Cup," explained Hungarian coach Pat Cortina, who was born and raised in Montreal. "This is the hockey Mecca for them. Just the type of building and the way the players are treated in the 'A' pool is so important. They don't have conditions like this too often."

Added Szuper: "We're living a dream. We're happy to be here and we just want to play our brains out and just show the world that (qualifying) wasn't a (fluke)."

Canada's main objective will be to use the game as a chance to get to know one another better. The tournament-opening 6-1 win over Belarus on Friday was the only time this group of players have competed as a group.

Ruff and his coaching staff will also place an emphasis on respecting the Hungarian team.

This tournament is known for producing upsets and Canada needs only look back to a 4-3 loss to Norway in 2000 as proof that it isn't totally immune.

"It happens," said defenceman Chris Phillips. "All these teams over here, the guys are talented. They can all skate and shoot and move the puck."

The Hungarians have dedicated their performance at this event to longtime national team player Gabor Ocskay, who died of a heart attack last month at age 34.

Cortina was nearly moved to tears while discussing the team's "heart and soul" and Ocskay's No. 19 has been inscribed on some of the flags the rowdy Hungarian fans are carrying around.

Thousands of supporters have travelled from the Eastern European country and will create an environment that you would never find in an NHL arena. They sang and danced throughout Friday's game with Slovakia and a couple even set off small orange flares.

It's something the Canadian team is looking forward to.

"All of our guys have commented already on how wonderful the atmosphere is, especially the guys that haven't been here before," said assistant coach Dave Tippett. "I was sitting watching that game last night and we were just saying, 'Can you imagine someone letting off a flare like that in Madison Square Garden or Staples Center?'

"There would be chaos."

Even if Hungary doesn't end up being much of a challenge on the ice, the Canadians stand to learn something.

"It's a different atmosphere," said Tippett. "It's an energized atmosphere and it's not something we go through on a day to day basis. So it's good."

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