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

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
TODAY
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order