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.”

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USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter at pre-Games competition.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games by the IOC.

The USOC has honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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