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.

IOC expects decisions on Russian doping cases next month

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Investigators at the International Olympic Committee expect to have “a number” of doping cases involving Russians at the Sochi Olympics resolved by the end of November, but they have no plans to dictate the eligibility of these athletes for next year’s Winter Games in PyeongChang.

The leader of an IOC delegation in charge of reviewing 28 cases involving athletes at Sochi wrote to the head of the IOC Athletes Commission this week to update the timeline of cases stemming from a report detailing a Russian doping scheme at the 2014 Olympics and beforehand.

Denis Oswald said that of the cases his committee is reviewing, priority has been given to those involving athletes looking to compete in PyeongChang. Top priority goes to six cross-country skiers whose provisional suspensions expire Oct. 31.

Oswald also said his committee would rule on these athletes’ results for Sochi, but will not determine their eligibility for PyeongChang, instead handing over evidence to their respective sports federations to decide.

The IOC also appointed a task force to look at the Russian doping scandal as a whole, the results of which could have wider repercussions on the country’s eligibility at next year’s Olympics.

In a separate letter sent to worldwide sports leaders, IOC President Thomas Bach said only that the Schmid Commission is continuing its evaluation and that “I hope that the IOC Executive Board will still be able to take a decision this year because none of us want this serious issue to overshadow” the upcoming Olympics.

The updates come amid a growing chorus of calls for a timely decision and for Russia’s ouster from PyeongChang.

The IOC commissions are operating off information from the McLaren Report, the first part of which was released in July 2016.

In explaining the timeline, Oswald wrote that because the Russian scheme involved exchanging dirty urine samples with clean ones, it took time to adopt methods to verify that samples had been tampered with — in part by finding evidence of scratch marks on collection bottles that had been opened and re-sealed.

“The task has not been easy in both establishing a methodology in an area in which there are no established protocols,” he wrote, “and then moving through the necessary scientific analysis of each individual sample in a way which would withstand legal challenge.”

MORE: USOC boss calls for immediate action on Russian doping

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Two-time Olympian becomes first woman to lead U.S. national swim team

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Two-time Olympian Lindsay Mintenko has been picked to lead the U.S. national swimming team. She is the first woman to hold the title.

USA Swimming made the announcement Wednesday.

Mintenko replaces Frank Busch, who retired Oct. 1 as managing director. She has been a member of the national team staff since 2006.

During her swimming career, Mintenko won gold medals as a U.S. team captain at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics 800m freestyle relay and added a silver in 2004 on the 400m freestyle relay.

USA Swimming also announced an organizational restructuring that will place all technical divisions, including the national team, under the oversight of chief operating officer Mike Unger.

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