Russia-U.S. hockey gave Games a massive spark

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SOCHI, Russia – On Russian television, in the hours after a thrilling, beautiful and strange hockey game, they showed the Fyodor Tyutin goal that did not count. Tyutin takes a hard wrist shot from the blue line. The puck smacks into a high part of the net. The Russians celebrate. Then they show it again. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Again. Now from a different angle. Now from the first angle. Shot. Net. Celebrate.

And again.

Now, they show the referee go into the booth to review. He puts on a headset. Quick, one more shot of Tyutin scoring. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Back to the referee. He steps out of the booth. He waves off the goal. Now a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin looking displeased. Now the goal again.

And all the while they are talking – commentators, analysts, a former Russian Olympian. They speak Russian words rapidly, forcefully, emotionally. There is no translator around. There is none needed. It’s clear what they are saying.

They are saying that Russia got cheated.

VIDEO: A Russian-language broadcast of the game

Back home in America, Saturday’s United States-Russia hockey game might have been the moment when these Sochi Olympics took flight. Up to now these have been a disjointed American Olympics. There have been wonderful moments – Sage Kotsenburg taking slopestyle gold on a trick he’d never tried, Julia Mancuso winning a medal at her third straight Olympics, Noelle Pikus-Pace completing her impossible journey with a silver and so on.

There have been numerous disappointments. All of it has felt sporadic and uneven. The Olympics needed a centerpiece.

Then came this magnificent hockey game between the U.S. and Russia in front of a wild crowd here and big early morning crowd back in the States. There was nothing too big at stake except for every emotion and nuance that has marked the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Russia scored first on a lightning-strike goal from their hockey genius Pavel Datsyuk. The U.S. answered when defenseman Cam Fowler stuffed home a shot from right in front of the net.

Team USA took the lead on a perfectly set up power play goal from Joe Pavelski early in the third. Russia tied it three minutes later on more breathtaking stuff from Datsyuk. “It was like, they scored, we scored, they scored, we scored,” American T.J. Oshie would say.

WATCH FULL REPLAY OF USA-RUSSIA MEN’S HOCKEY HERE

And all of it was played at such a breathtakingly high level, with so much speed and force and will, that people felt compelled to go on Twitter and gush, “Isn’t Olympic hockey amazing?” The Russians – particularly the Datsyuk line – created beautiful chances. American goalie Jonathan Quick made several unthinkable saves. Time and again, the Russians would create beautiful geometric setups for star Alex Ovechkin to unleash his lethal slap shot. Time and again, American defenders would jump in front of the screaming puck. “Takes tremendous courage,” American coach Dan Bylsma said, happily speaking the obvious.

Shortly before the end of the third period, Tyutin scored the goal that wasn’t a goal. He was standing in back left corner of the zone, and he wristed a shot that Quick lost in traffic. The puck sailed over Quick’s left shoulder, clearly went in the net, and then bounced out. The Russian celebration was on, the Bolshoy Ice Dome a wall of sound.

The officials never really explained to the crowd why the goal was disallowed – even Bylsma would say he was never given the reason. The goal was disallowed because the American net was slightly – SLIGHTLY – off its moorings, having been crashed into by Jonathan Quick himself. That can be enough to disallow the goal. But, as we will see, it’s not that simple.

The disallowed goal did not set off anger, at least at first. There was no official protest, no obvious fury even in the stands. Instead, it set off a massive wave of confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had just happened. Some thought the officials had ruled the puck never went in the net. Some thought there must have been some sort of technical ruling.

The fury would come out later.

RELATED: Russian players think Quick intentionally dislodged goal

The amazing game went into overtime, and then it went into a shootout. Most hockey purists despise shootouts, and they are right. It’s a gimmicky way to end great games; not unlike ending the World Series with a home run derby or an NBA finals with a three-point shootout or a chess world championship match with a quick game of checkers.

But, it’s hard not to admit: While a shootout may be cheat entertainment, it is entertaining. The best goal scorers go one-on-one with the goalie. That means every single play ends one of three ways: With a brilliant goal, a brilliant save, or a titanic blunder. The Olympic shootout adds another element – in the Olympics, if the score is still tied after the first three players on each team go, then the shootout continues until there’s a winner. And a team can send the same person out again and again and again endlessly.

That is how the United States met T.J. Oshie on Saturday. Oshie in his real life is a forward for the St. Louis Blues, but on Saturday played the role of American superhero. Five straight times, the United States sent him out there to either win the game or keep the overtime going. The United States has a lot of great goal scorers. Bylsma never seemed to consider any of them but Oshie.

Oshie has a distinctive shootout style. While most players take the puck and go in something of a straight line – building up some speed to make the goalie feel threatened – Oshie at first skates slowly and aimlessly, as if he’s looking for someone to ask for the next couples skate. He winds around, and winds around; the mission seems to be to make the goalie move first. He does this with hypnotic grace.

Here’s how Oshie’s five key shootout shots went.

VIDEO: Watch all of T.J. Oshie’s shootout goals

No. 1: With a chance to win the game, he slowly moved in on Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, made a sudden move to his left that left the net wide open. He flicked his shot over the goal for a miss. “Even when he didn’t score,” Bylsma would say, “it looked like he would.”

No. 2: With Oshie needing to make the shot to keep the Americans in the game, he glided in – so slowly he did not seem to moving his legs – and he waited for Bobrovsky to make his move. Bobrovsky did. Oshie slid the puck through his legs.

No. 3: Again he needed a goal to keep the game alive, and this time he came in very close to the goalie, pulled some kind of shoulder and elbow fake that made Bobrovsky go down, and then he flipped the puck over him for the goal.

No. 4: This time for the win, Oshie again thoroughly faked out Bobrovsky and seemed to have scored when suddenly – perhaps even luckily – Bobrovsky’s stick connected with the puck, deflecting it over the net.

No. 5: The game-winner, one more slow approach, one more time waiting for Bobrovsky to make the first move, one more shot through the legs. And the Americans had won. They raced on the ice to celebrate.

And so an astonishing game ended. Only, no. It didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It won’t end for a long time. Almost immediately after the game, there was word that Russian defenseman Slava Voynov, who played with Quick for the Los Angeles Kings, told Russian reporters that Quick has a habit of dislodging nets when attackers are buzzing around. “I play with him,” Voynov said. “I know that’s his style.”

Quick’s response: “I didn’t know until after I saw – I turned around and saw the net was off. It was a lucky break.”

That “lucky break” theme didn’t really play in Russia. For one thing, nobody seemed sure the net being slightly off its moorings should have mattered. In the National Hockey League, the goal almost certainly would have been allowed because the net’s slight misplacement had no bearing on the goal itself.

Then Ovechkin pointed out that even if the net was off its moorings, it was clearly knocked off by the Americans. So there should have been a penalty called on Quick. The Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said the officials had made a mistake but pleaded, “What can I do?”

VIDEO: Al Michaels, Doc Emrick discuss game’s impact

And then came the media types – one asked why an American, Brad Meier, was one of the officials – and then came Russian television to show the goal over and over (they just showed it AGAIN) along with Putin’s reproachful look. And these Russian Olympics have a full-on sports controversy.

The Russian goal, I suspect, should have counted. Here in Russia, where there’s soul-crushing pressure on the hockey team to win gold, that no-goal probably will be remembered forever, much in the same way that in America we always remember the final three seconds of the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game, when the Soviets were given repeated chances to win and, eventually, did.

But this one IS different. That Olympic basketball game was for gold. There were no second chances for the American team (who refused their silver medals). This, on the other hand, was just the second game for both teams; the game really wasn’t for much more than pride and maybe a little placement down the Olympic road.

The point is, instead of ending Russia’s quest, it just made the quest more compelling. A second meeting between Russia and the U.S. might explode the entire sports world. Yes, in Russia and in the United States, as my kids like to say, the Olympics are so on.

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.”

Olympic freestyle skiing medalists Maddie Bowman and Gus Kenworthy have said they plan to skip the traditional Team USA post-Olympic White House visit due to the current presidential administration.

Kenworthy repeated that stance on Monday. He said he was shocked that President Donald Trump believed that athletes kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag.

“Those people [servicemen and women] are fighting for the freedom to express their beliefs,” Kenworthy said. “I feel proud to be from a country where we have the right to be able to kind of say what we feel, speak up for what we believe in. I feel that people kneeling before a game is actually quite admirable.”

Kenworthy didn’t rule out a personal demonstration at the Olympics, should he qualify again, but knows he could be stripped of a medal for doing so.

“I’m not saying that I would want to be dictated by fear, and if I was to get a medal and be too scared that it would be taken away from me,” he said. “I think that there’s a way to do things in a way that’s not going to sabotage yourself. You can stand up for something and not throw yourself under the bus.”

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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.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Another is goalie Ryan Zapolski, who ranks third in the KHL in goals-against average this season.

John-Michael Liles, a 2006 Olympic defenseman and unsigned NHL veteran, is not interested in continuing his career in a non-NHL league to be considered for the Olympics, USA Hockey said.

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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