Paul Martin

Paul Martin represents 2006 U.S. Olympic hockey ‘taxi squad’ in Sochi

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In 2006, three NHL players flew to Torino in addition to the U.S. Olympic Team. They had credentials. They received USA jerseys, but they were not officially Olympians.

Matt Cullen, Hal Gill and Paul Martin made up what was called the “taxi squad.”

In a Torino-specific rule, a men’s hockey team could replace as many as three injured players from a group of alternates allowed to practice with the team on Olympic ice.

It never happened at the Olympics before. It hasn’t happened since.

It was allowed in Torino “for logistical reasons,” said an International Ice Hockey Federation official, who did not say why the taxi squad didn’t return for Vancouver 2010 or Sochi 2014. There are two logical reasons, though.

It would have been easier to fly in injury replacements for North American Olympics (2010), and hockey rosters were expanded from 23 to 25 men for 2014.

In 2006, the U.S. team stayed healthy en route to a quarterfinal exit. So, Cullen, Gill and Martin did not make it onto an active roster for an Olympic game and therefore were not officially Olympians.

Of the three, Martin is who makes the 2006 taxi squad relevant again eight years later.

In 2010, the defenseman was named to the Vancouver Olympic Team on New Year’s Day while recuperating from a broken right forearm suffered Oct. 25, 2009.

Due to setbacks, he couldn’t return before the Olympics and was officially taken off the U.S. Olympic Team on Feb. 2, 2010, 10 days before the Opening Ceremony.

USA Hockey tapped an injured Martin again for the Olympic Team this year. He fractured a tibia in late November and sat out until Jan. 20.

He’s healthy and ready for an Olympic debut eight years in the making in Sochi. It’s been a winding road after traveling to Torino and being part of the Vancouver team for one month.

Martin, now 32, said being thisclose to the Olympics has been the biggest disappointment of his career to this point.

“Deep down, I would have obviously loved to be there and play there if I go all the way over there [in 2006],” he said, “but this will be my turn.”

His taxi squad mates share part of his joy. On Feb. 6, 2006, the first and only U.S. Olympic taxi squad was announced to join the Olympic Team that had been named Dec. 20, 2005.

The taxi squad included Cullen, then a 29-year-old Carolina Hurricanes forward who knew Italy well, having led its domestic league in scoring during the 2004-05 lockout.

Cullen also played for 2006 U.S. Olympic coach Peter Laviolette at Carolina, which would win the Stanley Cup four months after the Olympics.

Laviolette told Cullen he made the taxi squad on the same night he broke his jaw against the Atlanta Thrashers.

“Bittersweet,” Cullen said. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a taxi squad. I didn’t know exactly what it would mean.”

Martin, then a 24-year-old New Jersey Devils defenseman, was reported in 2006 to be a candidate to replace the injured Aaron Miller (back) on the official Olympic Team.

But Laviolette tapped his own defenseman, Bret Hedican, to the active roster, which was announced the same day Cullen and Martin were named as two of three taxi squad players.

Hedican is married to 1992 Olympic figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi.

The third member of the original 2006 taxi squad was goalie Ryan Miller, the fortress behind the 2010 U.S. Olympic silver medal team and a candidate to start in Sochi.

But Miller would be held in the U.S. rather than joining Cullen and Martin in Torino. There was less need for a fourth goalie on site than an extra skater.

Technically, that meant another player could be added to the taxi squad as Miller was merely an alternate.

That happened Feb. 9, 2006, when Gill was named six days before the start of the Olympic hockey tournament.

Gill, then a 30-year-old Boston Bruins defenseman, had made the U.S. team for the World Championships in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005.

Gill was offered a taxi squad spot via a USA Hockey phone call. He hastily canceled an NHL Olympic break vacation with his wife, even though he knew he might not get into a game.

“That’s the one thing you dream of as a kid is being in the Olympics,” said the tall (6-7), talkative Gill. “There was no way I was giving up that chance. I accepted, took off and went over.”

The Torino taxi squad practiced and worked out with the U.S. Olympic Team, but they stayed in a separate hotel rather than the Olympic Village. They watched the U.S. games from seats inside the Palasport Olimpico and the Torino Esposizioni.

“We were involved in whatever the team was doing, but the problem was there were so many games that the team didn’t do much,” Gill said. “It was more sitting and waiting.”

The U.S. played Feb. 15, 18, 19, 21 and 22, getting knocked out in the quarterfinals.

“We would say hi to everybody after the games,” Cullen said. “That was about it.”

They did get in the team picture, though.

“I didn’t really know if anybody knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing,” Cullen said. “We were just there.”

They joked that they were cheerleaders. They kept a close eye on Team USA, trying to determine if anybody picked up an injury to potentially open up a spot on the active roster.

“I know there was a point where [defenseman] Brian Rafalski had an injury that he ended up playing through,” Gill said. “We were watching that, but I figured Paul Martin would have been the guy to go to.”

Martin was a more offensive-minded player than Gill, better suited to Rafalski’s role. Rafalski suffered a rib injury in his final NHL game before the Olympics and was day to day in Torino.

Off the ice, the taxi squad lived up to its name, cabbing the city and wining and dining nightly.

Gill watched the men’s Alpine skiing slalom in Sestriere and trick-move snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis’ silver medal ceremony and made the Bank of America hospitality tent his second home.

“As many espressos as we can handle and enjoy the wine after games,” Gill said. “The taxi squad had a good bonding trip.”

That was as close as Cullen and Gill would get to the Olympics. They’re now 37 and 38. Does Gill regret getting so close and never making it back?

“Of course,” he said, “but I’ll never forget that experience. I was honored to be there.”

Cullen, Gill and Martin still keep up with each other either at NHL games or in the offseason in the case of the Minnesotans Martin and Cullen.

“We always give a little taxi squad salute,” Gill said.

And a stick tap for Martin, especially, for going back to the Olympics.

“It could be my third Olympics, but you can’t look at it like that,” Martin said. “Some things happen. It just makes this one more special to hopefully go and play some games and be part of that whole experience.”

U.S. names Olympic hockey captain

Yuzuru Hanyu wins record fourth straight Grand Prix Final; Nathan Chen on podium

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu became the first singles skater to win four straight Grand Prix Finals, while 17-year-old Nathan Chen is the second-youngest men’s medalist in the event’s 22-year history.

The Olympic champion Hanyu held on to win despite scoring 10 points fewer than Chen in the free skate in Marseille, France, on Saturday.

Chen finished second, 11.05 points behind, rising from fifth of six skaters after Thursday’s short program.

“It’s kind of a shock,” said Chen, the U.S. bronze medalist who is in his first season as a senior skater. “I wasn’t really expecting to be able to come out with a medal here.”

Chen landed four quadruple jumps in his free skate with no falls after erring on both of his quads in the short program.

Hanyu fell once and singled a Lutz, scoring 32.11 points fewer than his record free skate last year.

“I feel total disappointment with my long program,” Hanyu said to open the post-event press conference. “But the result is good.”

Chen became the first U.S. men’s medalist at the Grand Prix Final since Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir earned gold and bronze in 2009.

Only Russian Yevgeny Plushenko won a men’s Grand Prix Final medal at a younger age, a bronze at 16 in the 1998-99 season.

U.S. champion Adam Rippon fell three times Saturday and finished last of six skaters.

Chen, the darling attraction of the 2010 U.S. Championships at age 10, is now the clear favorite for the U.S. Championships in January. Chen can become the youngest U.S. champion since Scott Allen in 1966.

“There’s always room to improve in terms of artistry and stuff like that,” said Chen, who has been working with noted ice dance coach and choreographer Marina Zoueva this fall. “I guess that will be the biggest goal for me next.”

NBCSN will air Grand Prix Final coverage Sunday from 8:30-11 p.m. ET.

MORE: Javier Fernandez builds toward last Olympic chance

Men’s Results
GOLD: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 293.90
SILVER: Nathan Chen (USA) — 282.85
BRONZE: Shoma Uno (JPN) — 282.51
4. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 268.77
5. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 266.75
6. Adam Rippon (USA) — 233.10

Yevgenia Medvedeva repeats as Grand Prix Final winner, misses Yuna Kim record

Yevgenia Medvedeva
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Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva extended one of the most dominant runs in recent history, repeating as Grand Prix Final champion on Saturday.

Medvedeva recovered from stepping out of her opening jump — a shocking error for her — to total 227.66 points, the second-highest score under an 11-year-old judging system. The 17-year-old just missed Yuna Kim‘s record 228.56 from the 2010 Olympics.

Medvedeva, who last lost in November 2015, won by 9.33 points over Japan’s Satoko Miyahara in Marseille, France. Russian Anna Pogorilaya was third, followed by Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

Miyahara, Pogorilaya and Osmond all tallied personal-best free skates.

Medvedeva made that early mistake skating to music from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. It’s a controversial program choice that includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

“I’m happy, but I’m so sad about my mistake on my first jump,” Medvedeva said.

Nobody has finished within five points of Medvedeva during this winning streak, which included the 2016 European and World Championships and this perfect Grand Prix season. She’s seeking the first perfect season, including Grand Prix Final and world titles, since countrywoman Irina Slutskaya in 2004-05.

No U.S. woman qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2008.

NBCSN will air Grand Prix Final coverage Sunday from 8:30-11 p.m. ET.

MORE: Javier Fernandez builds toward last Olympic chance

Women’s Results
GOLD: Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 227.66
SILVER: Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 218.33
BRONZE: Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 216.47
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.45
5. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 198.79
6. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 188.81