Are U.S. and Canada on golden collision course in hockey?

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No matter how many times they say it – and they’ve said it plenty in the past few days – members of the United States women’s hockey team will have a tough time arguing there are more gold-medal contenders than two when their Olympic tournament starts Saturday in Sochi.

But here’s star forward Amanda Kessel trying to argue it anyway: “It’s not only Canada that we have to beat.”

And here’s coach Katey Stone: “It’s an eight-team tournament as far as we’re concerned. We’ve got a game on Saturday against Finland, and we’re not looking past that. The last game we didn’t win was against Finland in the Four Nations Cup, and there’s not a player in that locker room that doesn’t remember that.”

True, the U.S. did lose to Finland in November, thanks to a 58-save performance by Golden Gophers goalie Noora Raty. However, there’s a reason most news stories included the word “stunned” to describe what the Finns did to their opponents in that 3-1 victory.

It sure didn’t look like “an eight-team tournament” on Tuesday when the U.S. scrimmaged with Germany. They didn’t keep an official score, but roughly speaking, it was a lot for the U.S. to not much, if any, for the overmatched Germans, who appeared beyond exhausted by the end of it. Even a first-time hockey observer would have noticed the enormous discrepancy in talent and execution.

In international women’s hockey, it’s the U.S., Canada, then everyone else. Should one of those teams from the “everyone else” category beat one of the big two here in Sochi, something fairly extraordinary has happened.

Given the hierarchy in women’s hockey, it’s no surprise the pair of powerhouses has developed a fierce rivalry. In December, the two sides had a much-publicized line brawl in Grand Forks. And that wasn’t their first punch-up in the last few years either.

VIDEO: Julie Chu explains why the U.S.-Canada rivalry is so good

Kessel – the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel — isn’t expecting any of that in the Olympics, though.

“I don’t think you’ll see any fighting here,” she said. “I think people know what’s at stake, and it’s important to stay out of the box.”

Stone, on the other hand, didn’t completely count out the possibility, if that’s the way Canada wants to play.

“That was a controlled response in North Dakota, and our kids are going to try to control as many situations as they can on the ice,” Stone said. “So we’re going to play our game, but we’re prepared to play any game we have to play.”

Fisticuffs aside, Canada has won the last three Olympic gold medals, including the last one four years ago in Vancouver, where the hosts came away with a 2-0 victory in the final game.

For U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, that’s a big part of the motivation this time around.

“When you come up short, it doesn’t feel good,” said Duggan.

“I know for those of us that have been on teams in the past that have been unsuccessful against Canada, that burns in your heart every single day. How we prepare ourselves this year, how we train, everything we’ve done on the ice, off the ice, is in preparation to come out of this tournament with a gold medal.”

Kessel concurred: “We’re here to win gold and nothing else.”

The U.S. and Canada are guaranteed at least one meeting, a preliminary round match-up on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

After that, it’s likely both teams will receive a bye to separate semi-final games on Feb. 17.

The gold-medal game would then loom next, on Feb. 20.

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